In my last posts, I wrote a bit about ways to move an existing draft along when you find yourself staring at the screen. But that assumes there’s a draft there to move along. What about when there isn’t? What about when you still need to find the story?
I’m a stationery junkie, so here’s how it goes in my world: I literally find myself staring at a blank page. (All right, I like quad-ruled paper, so it’s never a totally blank page, but you get the idea.) Sometimes I wind up staring at that page because I have a vague idea itching at me that I think might turn into something; sometimes it’s because I feel like I need some kind of palate-cleanser, but I don’t have any specific story in mind. On two occasions it’s been because I needed something to show an editor and I knew nothing on my current to-do list was going to be what she wanted, and once it’s been because my critique group gave each other prompts for a summer project, assigned by random drawing. I got “stained glass.” It meant nothing to me at the time, but I needed to come up with a story anyway, because that was the point of the exercise.
People find stories in all different ways–writing exercises, prompts, daily journaling, whatever else–so once again (I feel like it should go without saying), these are just things that have worked for me.
Today, item number one: Research. Sometimes it’s for when you don’t even know what the heck you’re researching.
Ah, research, sitting on that fine line between productivity and procrastination like that idol thing at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Take it off the pedestal wrong and there goes your day. Do it right and you still might lose your day, but maybe tomorrow, after you’ve processed what you read and you’ve fallen asleep trying to figure out whether you actually learned anything useful and if so, how it relates to anything else–maybe tomorrow you’ll sit down and scrawl a few thoughts that relate to your potential story.
The tricky thing about research when you don’t know what you’re looking for is, obviously, where do you start? Me, I’m usually looking for weird.
Sometimes, for various reasons, I know the story hiding just out of view is probably going to need to be set in a certain era, which is awesome. Or perhaps there’s an era I’ve kind of been wanting to learn more about. At least it narrows things down, although not necessarily that much. After having done this for a few years now, I am getting a sense of where to look to find the kind of weird that appeals to me, and there tend to be good traces of it at the edges of science, religion, and the arts. Wartime has tremendous scope for the weird, for various reasons. Folklore and superstition, for reasons that are probably obvious. Technology, which often involves philosophy.
I find a lot, a lot of useful stuff reading about these particular elements of whatever era I research. These are things that involve tackling questions of the unknown, or at least the not-well-understood. They are things that people give their lives to. Not coincidentally, they are also things that polarize, and while I get very bitter and angry about the polarization I see in my own world in my own lifetime, a story needs conflict and a writer needs to know where to look to find it. Even when I don’t have a particular era to help focus where I’m looking, I still tend to default to the same basic spheres I mentioned two paragraphs up. As I hunt, like I said, I’m looking for weird, and I’m looking for something I haven’t encountered a hundred times before. I’m looking for something that makes me dog-ear a page and fumble for my notebook and a pen.
Last year I visited Deer Hill School in Massachusetts and took a bagful of books full of weird stuff to talk to students about finding stories in unexpected places. Together we went through an assortment that included science, history, bizarre diseases, cartography, cabinetry, a couple of my grandfather’s notebooks, and I can’t even remember what else. We were looking for things that could be the jumping-off point for stories. The kids each picked a book and scoured it until they found something, anything, that caught their eye as a potential plot point, character clue, whatever. Anything. Then we talked about how one might go from that first thing-that-made-you-stop-turning-pages to a rough story idea. We talked about the necessities of reading widely, and of keeping an open mind; we talked about how something you might never have thought you’d be interested in could turn out to be exactly the missing piece that either completes your story or helps to spark a vague story idea in the first place.
Research. Open-ended, open-minded, undirected research; research just for the fun of it. And for this girl, at least, it guarantees that I am almost never without a jumping-off point when I’m ready for something new. Finding a new story by going on this kind of hunt depends on two potentially contradictory things, I think.
One: being roughly aware of what sorts of things catch your interest and knowing where to look for them. As I type this I’m reminded of something my friend and illustrator extraordinaire Andrea Offermann told me she’d been told about keeping a sketchbook. I’m paraphrasing here, but the basic idea was that a really great way to keep yourself sketching even when you aren’t inspired to do it or don’t have a subject in mind is to know what kinds of things you like to sketch and start with those when you need a jumping-off place.
Two: being open-minded enough to look in other places, too. The first time my husband wanted to read me an article about the differences between object-oriented and functional programming, I just about banged my head on the steering wheel to make him stop (I was driving at the time, and therefore couldn’t leave the room and claim I had work to do). But he was absolutely certain this article–about two types of computer programming philosophies, remember–was relevant to Simon Coffrett and the other Jumpers of the world of The Boneshaker. And dammit, he was right. He was SO right that if I tried to explain WHY he was right, I’d be giving you huge spoilers. And I should have known he’d be right, because he’s given me critical tidbits like this about a million times before. The Broken Lands only has an ending because of a couple of those tidbits. But if you’d told me a couple years ago that I’d be increasingly relying on computer science to write middle-grade historical fantasy, I’d have laughed in your face. And yet, here I am, and quite literally neither of my forthcoming books would exist if not for things that I didn’t think I’d be interested in at first.
Other things I would not have expected to be fascinated by but that turned out to be critical to something I either have worked on or am working on right now:
This is just off the top of my head, without consulting the truly batshit-crazy collection of books that lines my walls.
So I guess the tl;dr of this post is that, when hunting for a story, it sometimes helps to both know roughly where you ought to be looking and to be willing to peek into random cabinets along the way, even if they don’t look remotely like the sort of cabinets that are going to contain what you’re seeking. Be openminded. Keep copious notes. Look for the unfamiliar. And when the rabbit hole does, finally, turn up at your feet, you’ll be ready to follow it, even if it doesn’t, at first glance, seem to lead where you expected.
Next up, lists: they’re not just for household chores and grocery shopping!
So far in this little series, I’ve rambled a little about a number of reasons why one might wind up staring blankly at a page, stalled mid-project, and the ways I work around them when they mess with my progress on a story. But the things at the top of the list–needing a kick in the pants and needing better focus–are sort of the easy problems. Time now to tackle the scary items way down at the bottom of the list.
You suddenly don’t love this project anymore.
Sometimes this isn’t the problem; sometimes its a symptom of something else–one of those focus problems, for instance. Or it could be the result of burnout. Sometimes, especially if you’re on a deadline, you may be hating the thing because you legitimately need a break.
My last four books all had to be written, for various reasons, in relatively brief stretches of time (one month for The Kairos Mechanism and three to four months for The Broken Lands, Greenglass House, and The Left-Handed Fate). My workdays for these tended toward a minimum of 3000 words; in the case of the novels, I more often had to push to clock days that were closer to 5000 or 6000 words. At some point, I hated every one of those books, just out of sheer burnout. I go through points where I’m so focused on meeting the deadline that not just the dishes, but taking care of myself goes right out the window. Within two weeks of the deadline of every single one of the novels I got sick enough to require me to stop writing for a few days because I literally couldn’t sit up for a couple of days. It took getting sick to make me stop and slow down.
And it takes far less than this level of output to burn yourself out, especially if there are other things going on in your life that might be contributing to the angst. So make sure the problem isn’t that you need to stop and take a break. Maybe don’t give yourself such a hard time. (Says the girl who ought to take her own advice now and then.)
Now, if the problem isn’t that you’re working so hard on the thing you can’t do anything but curse it, but you’re still cursing it–that’s different. Maybe you need to be reminded why you loved the thing in the first place. Here are some ways I re-kindle my connection with what I’m working on when it starts to annoy me.
Print the thing out and read it from the beginning. I don’t do this while I’m working, usually. I might re-read what I wrote yesterday, but in general I neither read from the beginning or do any meaningful editing while I’m trying to get to the end of something. But sometimes stopping to read from the beginning is just what the doctor ordered. Reading the whole thing on paper is a great way to remind myself that what I’m writing isn’t awful. It reminds me that I want to know what happens next. And because it’s on paper and not on a screen, it’s an experience unlike all that staring at the screen I’ve been doing. Sometimes, as a special bonus, I discover things in the story that either I’d forgotten I put there or just didn’t realize I’d put there, and those act as catalysts to move things forward when I go back to writing.
Revisit the original source of inspiration for the thing, or look for a new source altogether. For me, this usually means go back to the research that put me onto the story in the first place to revisit the reasons I want to write this particular project. Sometimes, though, it means looking for something new to bring to the piece, a whole new chunk of inspiration. Sometimes research accomplishes that, but sometimes it takes something else: a road trip, a visit to a museum–something to open my eyes, get me thinking with new circuits and looking down roads that might lead in completely different directions from the way I thought I needed to go.
Sometimes, of course, even after trying all of these things I still find myself stranded and lost.
You’re stuck without a clue as to what happens next.
Weirdly, I actually find this a cool place to be, because anything at all can happen and all roads are still open to me. But that coolness dissipates pretty quickly after a couple days of getting nowhere and morphs into anxiety the closer I get to a deadline.
The easy solution is perhaps, next time, outline the thing. But like most easy answers, that doesn’t solve everything. I guess it depends on how you outline, how much detail you figure out ahead of time, and whether the story decides to play by the rules your outline sets out. Me, I hate outlining. I do it when necessary (meaning, when an editor makes me or when the deadline is particularly tight, like with the novellas). And I’m happy to do it in those circumstances, but in my experience even an outline doesn’t guarantee I won’t find myself staring dumbly at the screen, without a clue as to what to do next. So I…
Skip to a part where I do know what happens. This sounds obvious, but sometimes I forget I’m allowed to do it. I’m not kidding. But it’s an almost foolproof tactic when I get stuck. Just move on. There’s no law that says you have to write sequentially, or have any one section perfect before you move onto the next. There’s also no law that says you have to come back to that unfinished section until you get to the end.
Work backwards. This works for me a lot when I know vaguely where I need to go but am not sure what needs to happen between where I am and that vague endpoint. I list chapter titles. It’s kind of an outlining compromise, something like bullet points. This tactic also tends to work well when I’m writing something I need to be shorter (like the novellas). It imposes a bit of restraint.
Brainstorm or talk it out with someone who really gets you and what you’re trying to do. For me, this person is my husband. He rolls his eyes when I ask if I can talk out a story problem, but he’s a great listener, he asks great questions, and he has great ideas. This could be where you make an emergency call to your critique group or to a particularly thoughtful writing partner.
Go back to your research. Sometimes for me, the problem is not so much that I don’t know what comes next, but that there’s a piece missing without which I have no way of knowing what comes next. Sometimes it isn’t just about thinking harder or working a problem out, it’s about hunting down that missing puzzle piece. Most often, this means going back to my books; internet research tends to require (for me, at least) knowing at least what I’m looking for, but if I don’t know what’s missing, trying to find it on the interwebs turns into screwing around aimlessly and wasting time. For me, anyway. And there’s a fine line between research and procrastination.
And…well, that’s all I’ve got. Again, I can only speak to what works for me, but these are the strategies I tend to fall back on–or, in the case of everything above that argues for not being so hard on yourself or allowing adequate time for exercise and taking care of yourself, strategies I fully plan to be better about next time around. Here’s hoping there’s something here that you find helpful the next time you’re staring at a blank page. Share your thoughts and strategies, won’t you?
And thanks, @kindleaholic, for the great prompt!
The cursor is blinking, and your will is strong. It’s not a question of needing a kick in the pants–you have antique shoe frames for that–and yet you’re getting nothing done because your brain simply won’t focus where it needs to. This happens to me like every single day.
Let’s take Problems B, C, D, and E and call them the focus problems. I suffer focus problems a lot, for a lot of reasons.
Firstly, in addition to being a bad blogger, I am also a very, very bad housekeeper. Compounding the problem: my husband is perfectly happy eating takeout seven days a week, so there’s no external pressure for either of us to do the dishes until we’re out of something critical like coffee cups or silverware. But I cannot, cannot focus in a messy space. My brilliant little brother’s advice on this matter: throw the dishes out. But I actually like my dishes–as well as much of the other stuff that clutters up my life. Secondly, I procrastinate on things like replying to emails, texts, and phone calls, trips to the post office, calling the insurance company about that duplicate charge, etcetera. Thirdly, I like spending time with my husband, and finally, my brain will not limit itself to thinking about one book at a time.
But I have some strategies. Here they are.
Leave the house and go somewhere else. Must be somewhere without wifi.
My branch office happens to be the local diner. I go and write there as often as necessary, for as long as necessary. This solves Problem B completely and Problem C as well, because I have never asked for the public wifi password at the diner. I sometimes use Freedom and just shut myself off from home, but because I’m very rarely distracted only by the internet, that doesn’t work quite as well as the diner.
Get some good headphones and set some guidelines for interruptions.
Things get tricky when a spouse and kids are added into the mix. I haven’t had to figure out writing with kids yet, but two days a week, Nathan and I are both home together. The trouble comes because I like being at home with him (so the branch office is out) and because Nathan is able to transition from work to other internet stuff much better than I can. He’ll find something he thinks is funny or might be particularly useful to me and wants to share it immediately. But when I’m writing, I don’t stop and transition well. So we have an agreed-upon arrangement whereby if I have headphones on, all interruptions, no matter how useful, have to be submitted in the form of a ping on Gchat or an emailed link, which I am allowed to ignore until convenient. It’s such an easy signal, and it works.
Make sure there’s time to knock other stuff of the to-do list.
Between them, the diner and the headphones solve 75% of my focus problems. Of the remaining 25%, most tend to be solved by taking a day off to get All The Other Things done, stopping for a while to exercise, or now and then just taking a day off to do absolutely nothing related to writing. Nathan says I don’t do this often enough and don’t remember how to do it right. I’m working on that.
But about 10% of the time the problem is that I really want to be working on that other neat idea I’ve been wishing I could work on.
Consider caving in to the temptation of the shiny new idea on a very limited basis.
That probably seems counterintuitive. But there are two arguments for it. In the first place, often my brain fixates on a new idea because deep down I’m afraid I’ll lose it if I don’t do something with it. This is not only easily handled, but it can be handled in a way that caters neatly to my obsession with stationery: I get a new notebook, dedicate it to the new idea, and stop what I’m doing long enough to write down everything I know or think about it so far. Then I can relax, knowing the notebook is there whenever I’m ready.
But the big argument for caving to temptation is this: that shiny idea can actually help move the one that’s stuck in the mud forward. I use those ideas the way I use rewards to help me motivate myself to work out or eat better. And like exercise motivation, it works better to celebrate incremental successes along the way than by trying to wait to enjoy it until the whole project is done. So sometimes I’ll decide that if I have a really great writing day or solve a particular problem, I can spend an hour or two messing with the new project as a reward. But the key is, it has to be a reward for something substantial, and when the reward time is up, I have to stop. So maybe if I clock a 4000 word day or something, I get that evening after dinner to play with any project I want. But then tomorrow, it’s back to the grind. As a bonus, sometimes that palate cleanser even helps me to come back to the original project stronger and more energized.
So those are my focus-sharpening strategies. Tomorrow: tackling the scary problems at the bottom of the list. In the meantime, how do you handle focus issues when you’re working?
Nothing like updating your website with a glitchy plugin that requires hacking and constant refreshing to force you to look 18 times at the nearly month-old blog post that’s the most recent thing (other than the glitchy plugin) on your front page. Granted, I kinda like that I also got to look at that swoony picture of Stephen Decatur every time, but that’s no excuse for lazy blogging.
I never have a good excuse. I also don’t feel like I often have good ideas about what to blog about. So yesterday I asked on Twitter if anybody had any requests. And interestingly enough, my pal @kindleaholic suggested I write “a post about figuring out what to write when your brain is zombiefied.” ’Cause that isn’t at all the whole problem I’m having. IF I HAD THE ANSWER TO THAT, I WOULD ALSO HAVE HAD A BLOG POST.
And yet. And yet, as long as it’s not a blank post, I’m generally pretty good at getting past the blank page problem, and once I got going, it turns out that I had thoughts enough for several blog posts on the subject. Thanks, @kindleaholic! So here’s Part the First.
You’re humming along on a project you really love and all of a sudden the words stop. There are tons of reasons why this happens, and they’re all potentially scary, although some are scarier than others. A not-at-all exhaustive sampling of causes might include the following:
Those are the most frequent offenders in my life. Some are easier to deal with than others. Today, let’s start right at the top of the list and take a look at Problem A.
Set a deadline. Of course, this only works if you treat your deadline as seriously–or almost as seriously–as you’d treat a deadline from an editor. Make it reasonable, something that’s doable. A challenging deadline is great but not necessary. Set yourself up for success.
Clock some words with friends. I can only speak for myself, but I’m hugely motivated by writing with friends on Twitter. A quick tweet to a group I can usually count on to be slogging through a draft–or to the community at large using #1k1hr–links me to friends who are often the key to getting a tough day’s work done.
Stop obsessing about making what you wrote yesterday perfect. Now, I have friends, excellent writers all, who really don’t like moving on from one section until they’ve perfected it. They have this preference because they (not unreasonably) feel that it’s hard to know where the story’s really going until that first chapter’s set it solidly on its way. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach, but it doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, when I’m actively trying to get through a draft, I start my writing day with working through my word count and save reading anything that’s come before as a reward.
I also don’t typically edit at all until very late in the draft. I know I can fix anything afterward, but if I get bogged down with perfecting things too early, not only do I not make forward progress, it doesn’t even save me editing time later. I often make discoveries about the plot or characters that result in big changes to the story itself as I go. I accept that the resulting retrofitting that’s sometimes necessary is just part of how I work. Of course, not everybody is going to enjoy working this way–some people I’ve talked to hate the idea, or can’t even fathom how it works. That’s fine. It’s just one way of going at it, but it’s what works for me.
Because I work this way, spending time on early editing is more like procrastination than any kind of meaningful productivity. The way I figure it, I am always going to have editing to do afterward. The question is, do I have a draft to edit, or am I just editing a fragment? (Again, there’s nothing wrong with editing a fragment–your process is your process–but for me, setting editing aside until I’m done a draft is one of the ways I get through a draft in the first place.)
So that’s my three-part strategy for giving myself kicks in the pants when necessary. How do you keep yourself on task?
Tomorrow, on to the big fat middle of the list: focus problems.
Postscript: It now occurs to me that maybe the original prompt was actually asking for ideas for surviving the shambling apocalypse, in which case nothing here, nothing is going to help you. You probably need a bat or something, and a good pair of running shoes. I’m not at all prepared for that. Someone else will have to weigh in.
I’m closing in on the end of my first draft of The Left-Handed Fate, and I have this story problem. I think I’ve solved it, but it continues to bother me. In fact, it’s bothering me so much, I think it might not just be a story problem. I think it might be The Point. It was not supposed to be.
So here’s the problem. If you’d like to know the history behind it (which I, obviously, think is really important), you can read all of that below*. But the TL;DR is this: it’s 1812, America and Britain are at war (and it’s a war in which both sides are really, really pissed at each other and have been for about thirty years), and I need an American midshipman and a British privateer to work together on something that will give one side measurably more power–possibly the power to win the war out of hand–than the other.
But it’s actually more complicated than that. Not only do they have to work together, but my American midshipman, temporary prize-captain of a British privateer, has to effectively decide to ignore both his orders and every shred of common sense he has and hand the ship back over to its original crew so that the privateer can continue a mission that’s completely against American interests. The situation is so impossible that, once he’s decided to proceed along this course, basically the only thing that can possibly happen to the kid when it’s all over is a court-martial that, in the absolute best case, will kick him out of the navy. In the worst case, he’ll be declared a traitor and hanged. On the other hand, in this story, helping the privateer complete its mission is really the right thing to do.
Now, the factors that I put into place in this story to enable the boy to make this decision–to make it not only the morally right decision, but also one that makes enough practical sense that an actual officer under orders could choose the way the kid does–these factors, they are not inconsequential. They are so potent that, if hehad not bowed to them, he would have lost his ship and likely his life anyway. But the fact that the choice is there doesn’t make it a logical one, especially for a kid for whom the simplest and most justifiable answer–the only answer that’s likely to be accepted by his superiors, no matter what the circumstances–is to follow his orders even if they mean destruction. Any other decision involves some degree of working with the enemy, and therefore some degree of moral ambiguity, even if it’s the only one that saves the lives of his little prize-crew and the ship itself.
On the one hand, what I’ve set up creates enough justification for his making the choice for it to be believable. On the other hand, it still basically constitutes an act of treason during wartime, and my protagonist is still a twelve year-old boy–a boy who spends basically the entire book trying to figure out how to be a good leader when leadership is forced upon him. Either way, it’s suddenly sort of looking like The Point–or one of The Big Points–where it wasn’t before. Before, it was just a story problem I needed to solve. Now I think it’s more important than that.
But it’s also occurring to me that I never seem to figure out what The Point of anything I write is until I’m a chapter away from being done. I never sit down and think, I want to write a story about this theme or this idea. It’s always that I have an idea about a villain, or a weird historical thing, or just something I think is cool and want to use somehow. The Points always seems to turn up on their own. This will be the seventh manuscript I’ve written to completion, and this is actually the first time I’ve really sat up and paid attention to this pattern I seem to have.
It’s all just stuff I’m turning over in my head until I get my editorial notes–maybe I’m wrong and it is just a story problem after all (in which case, presumably I’ve solved it: yay!). But it’s going to be uppermost in my mind as I give the finished draft its first complete reading this week and I work through whether Acting Commander Dexter’s arc is what it needs to be.
Writerly folks–does this happen to you? That A) The Point turns up way late in the game; or B) that what seems to be just a story problem you think you fixed continues to bother you so much it threatens to become What The Book Is About?
It’s 1812. War has just been declared between the United States and Britain. A fascinating thing about this point in history is that our government actively didn’t want to get involved in foreign wars. They wanted this so badly that it took an incredible amount of work on the part of Jefferson and Adams over the course of three combined presidential terms to get Congress to authorize the construction of a blue-water Navy. That’s right–it seems absurd, looking back now, when any cuts to our defense budget make a huge chunk of our legislators start screaming that America is dead, but there was a point when our Congress believed a tiny regular army (and functionally no navy) would do just fine, supplemented by state militias and private coastal vessels. (You know that big debate going on right now, the one about guns? These were the “well-regulated militias” the Second Amendment’s talking about. The right to bear arms had a lot to do with the fact that militias were still relied upon to do most of the work that, two hundred and some years later, we delegate to the large professional military that many of the Founding Fathers emphatically did not want.)
Jefferson got Congress to authorize the building of six frigates; Congress fought tooth and nail against a blue-water navy because they didn’t see the point. They didn’t want us sending some teensy navy out against any of the bigger navies on the Atlantic, who were almost certainly going to smash it to pieces. At the time, Jefferson wanted to stop the Barbary States from harassing American shipping, but Britain was already causing the trouble that would eventually lead to the War of 1812.
Due to its decades-long wars with France, it was constantly short of the sailors needed to man the hundreds upon hundreds of ships of the Royal Navy, and additionally it viewed any trading (neutral) America did with France as unacceptable. Therefore, British ships made a practice of interfering with American shipping, preventing it from trading and also stopping American ships and literally taking sailors from them. Britain claimed to be taking only Englishmen who had deserted from British ships; in practice, many, many Americans were kidnapped, too. Congress believed that building an American navy to defend American shipping was pointless, because in any contest against the might of the Royal Navy, American ships would lose. Even when war became inevitable, Congress (and, in fact, President Madison) believed more good would be done by privateers than the tiny navy itself.
Meanwhile, Britain was furious at America both for insisting on neutrality when Britain was fighting Napoleon, who it (rightly) saw as a threat not only to British interests, but also to all of Europe and maybe the whole world. Worse, because France had been such a critical ally in the Revolutionary War, many Americans (not all, but many) were inclined to think if we came in on either side, we ought to come in on the French side. Britain was furious because it saw Britain and America as natural allies, linked by a common past and a common language. It was furious because it felt that its need for seamen so far outweighed America’s wish to protect the sovereignty it had just fought a war to gain that Britain actually saw America’s protests as something like betrayal.
Got it? Good. What hopefully is obvious in all of this is that it’s not a likely time for an American midshipman and a British privateer to decide to join forces.
It was the final piece of my original plan for The Kairos Mechanism: a digital edition illustrated by reader artists, one per chapter, each of whom would be paid for his or her work. I was excited about the whole project, but this particular piece–the illustrated edition–was the most special piece of all.
Everybody who got involved with The Kairos Mechanism was excited about the illustrated edition. Several of the co-conspirators donated their (meager) compensation in order to bring additional artists on board. With the help of an amazing group of Kickstarter backers, we were able to raise the amount each artist made per illustration from the originally-budgeted $100 to $125. Meanwhile, with the help of friends, colleagues, a few teachers and librarians and one fairly amazing counselor, I found twelve artists ranging in age from 11 to 20 years of age.
We all worked together to make sure that each artist was assigned the chapter he or she was most excited about (and some lobbied hard to be allowed to illustrate more than one). Beyond making sure that each chapter was covered, I gave no instructions, except where I was asked directly for input. And in September, the finished artwork began to arrive by mail and email. As I mentioned in my previous post, the final piece was hand-delivered to me by my cousin Annie on Christmas Day, the work of 12 year-old Hassan Davenport of Baltimore. Best present ever.
Because I wanted to offer the final edition free or pay-what-you like, I opted to rely on a PDF edition for this version, and last week I turned everything over to Allie Tova Hirsch, a literary designer recommended to me by the good folks at Vook. Allie took my files and created an interactive PDF (correcting more than one of my own formatting errors along the way). And here it is, at long last, complete with not thirteen but eighteen original illustrations.
Please enjoy this book. It is absolutely free if you would like it to be; follow the link and you can decide for yourself whether you’d like it to be complimentary (in which case, leave the dollar amount at zero). However, all proceeds from The Illustrated Kairos Mechanism go toward this summer’s release of Bluecrowne, so if you’d like to become a backer, just enter the amount you’d like to contribute in the dollar field. The artists have also decided to offer prints to help raise the cost of paying the next group of young illustrators for their work, which you can purchase here.
Last of all, please remember that although The Illustrated Kairos Mechanism is offered as a PDF and that you don’t necessarily have to pay for it, the text and all the images are copyright-protected and the rights belong respectively to myself and to the individual artists. If you would like to reproduce anything, please contact me directly about permissions. And if you read the book and would like to share it, please share the download link rather than sharing by any other means. Your friends can still have the book free if they’d like, but I’ll be able to get excited about every copy that’s circulating, which is helpful, and your friends might just contribute a buck or two, which is wicked helpful.
And I guess that’s–oh, right, you want to know where to get that book thing I’ve been talking about this whole time. Click here, and enjoy, with all our thanks for reading!
Aidan, Candice, Emma, Hassan, Lily, Maeve, Maud, Natalia, Shannon, Reed, Tanner, Victoria, and Kate
Let’s just ignore the fact that I haven’t updated things here in a month, shall we? But since you know I haven’t been blogging, let me tell you what I have been doing.
Firstly, yesterday was the official publication day of Shadowhunters and Downworlders, a Mortal Instruments Reader. I was invited to contribute a piece, which was awesome because I enjoyed the heck out of the books and I adore when cities become characters. My essay, Unhomely Places, opens the anthology and has a bit to do with the New York of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, a bit to do with Freud’s and Jentsch’s essays on the uncanny, a bit to do with my experience of coming to be at home in New York City, and everything to do with the strangeness and wonderfulness of places of all kinds. And the company I get to keep in this anthology! Holly Black, Kendare Blake, Gwenda Bond, Sarah Rees Brennan, Rachel Caine, Sarah Cross, Kami Garcia, Michelle Hodkin, Kelly Link, Diana Peterfreund, Sarah Ryan, Scott Tracey, Robin Wasserman…it’s pretty cool. You can read excerpts as well as Cassandra Clare’s introduction here.
But back to me and my wild and crazy winter.
I finished the first draft of Greenglass House in November and turned it in to my brilliant editor at Clarion, Lynne Polvino. While Lynne works through her notes, the book is already on its way to the designers, who will start to think about what the final package will look like. Not that there isn’t loads left to do; I’ve actually held off sending Greenglass to the Kid Editors until I hear Lynne’s thoughts on the ending. I have had loads to keep me busy in the meantime (see below). Greenglass House is still scheduled for publication in spring of 2014. If you need something to tide you over, why not poke around the website of the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture, the official website of the city where Greenglass House takes place?
Here’s a weird thing, while I’m on the subject: Greenglass House was a ridiculously terrifying and, I guess because of that, a wildy satisfying book to write. Why terrifying? For one thing, it’s my first contemporary novel. For another, it involves role-playing games, which I am fascinated by but have precious little practical experience with (and which I know will get me in trouble if I somehow wind up doing it wrong). But most frightening of all to me, it’s a far quieter story than either The Boneshaker or The Broken Lands. It’s not a story in which the fate of the world or even a town hangs in the balance; it’s a story about people, about secrets, about family, about identity, and about generosity. And, you know, some weird stuff happens, too. In fact, as I read the draft over, I can tell where I was starting to worry, because on the next page, something weird happens. When I get too far out of my comfort zone, I guess I default to oddball.
On Christmas Day I received the final piece of artwork from the last of the twelve reader artists behind The Illustrated Kairos Mechanism, and this month I put that edition together. On Monday I sent the final book to the good folks at Vook to convert into a PDF. As soon as I get that back, it’ll be available right here at The Clockwork Foundry, free or pay-what-you-like, with eighteen (EIGHTEEN!) brand-new and outstanding illustrations. Should you choose to make a donation, all proceeds go toward this summer’s publication of the second volume of the Arcana series, Bluecrowne. But donation or not, check it out. I cannot say enough about the work these artists have done. (The image here, by the way, is Candice Fortenberry’s illustration for Chapter Twelve.)
This week I finished the first half of The Left-Handed Fate, my first book with Holt and the wonderful Noa Wheeler. I cannot tell you how much I am loving writing this book, but much like The Broken Lands, it is a tremendously research-heavy project. I’ve been assembling my research materials for LHF for almost two years, since I first wrote the proposal, and since the actual book sale of course the library has grown to the point where it almost needs its own floor-to-ceiling bookcase. I also had to move a bunch of my Broken Lands books over to join the LHF pile, because a certain character you know from TBL is returning in LHF, which means I need my conflagrationeer texts where I can get at ‘em easily. But thanks to the writing and publishing of The Kairos Mechanism and the writing of Greenglass House (which was due first and which required some research of its own), I really couldn’t dig into that library until the end of October. So now I am researching and writing at the same time, which I’d say isn’t optimal (it results in things like my realizing that the book has to take place a full year earlier and in a different season, which isn’t an inconsequential pair of things to have to change when you’re writing a historical novel set during an actual war) but which I have discovered I don’t mind.
This is basically the same way The Broken Lands was written, because it was due four months after it was sold and it was sold from a proposal that amounted to a single page. No lie, I had not written any of that book at that point, and the “proposal” read more like jacket-flap copy than any kind of synopsis. (Nor, I might add, did any more elaborate synopsis exist in my head.) Because of that, I had only the broadest idea of what I needed to research before I started writing (basically, the Brooklyn Bridge, card sharpery, fireworks; that was it). Then I changed the date of the story there, too, from 1883 to 1877, which resulted in huge changes and a solid chunk of new research. Jin became a main character. Liao suddenly needed a grounding in Taoism and alchemy. None of these things were small fixes. It still came together in a novel I’m tremendously proud of.
Having gone through that once, I’m no longer afraid of writing and researching at the same time. It turns out, I kind of really like doing things that way. For one thing, I don’t have infinite bandwidth, and it’s much better for me not to have to hold all the stuff I have to learn in my head for longer than a couple of months. For another, there is plenty of time for me to fix things like years and seasons and do whatever retrofitting I need to after I have the draft done since The Left-Handed Fate is scheduled for release at the beginning of 2015. In the meantime, I’m plowing through books on of the war of 1812, men in black, the Age of Sail (the book to the right there was my birthday present from Nathan!), the history of computing, Forteana, folklore of the sea. My for-fun reading: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. (Last time I got up to book 15 before for reasons I can’t remember I forgot to pick up the next one.) And I’m right on track to have my draft done at the end of February! Then it’s on to Bluecrowne, a complete draft of which I owe myself at the beginning of March.
So it’s a pretty packed first couple months of 2013, but there’s a good reason: in June, Milford Command Central welcomes its first human junior officer (a boy junior officer, we know as of just this morning). I suspect my productivity will go right down the drain along with any chance I ever have again for a good night’s sleep. So I suppose I should add sleeping a lot to the list of stuff I’ve been doing that’s kept me from blogging. I’ve had a really easy time of it, but damned if this critter doesn’t wear me out. Oh, and drinking a lot of stuff that isn’t wine or bourbon. I’ve been doing that, too. (Kid, you’re going to owe me for these nine months for a long time.)
Now, let’s see if I can keep another month from going by before I post again. We shall see.
A couple weeks ago I got an envelope in the mail from my editor at Clarion, Lynne Polvino. Inside were two books I had really been wanting and which Lynne tracked down at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and sent over. After reading one of them I realized that even though I now had my own copy, I needed to get more for the Nephew Collection. This got me thinking about writing a post about stuff I’m very excited about giving this year.
Every year I think about writing one of these, mostly because starting my Christmas list is one of my favorite parts of the end of November. There is a whole page for little guys and girls in my life who will get sock-and-glove critters, another for the post office and pharmacy and laundry and delivery pros who keep Milford Command Central functioning and who will get gingerbread or cookies, and one for the dogs who will get treats and the less-aesthetically pleasing sock-and-glove experiments. Nathan takes care of the annual finding-of-ridiculous-t-shirts for immediate family. I try to come up with homespun goodies where I can, partly so I don’t run our finances off the rails and partly because I love knitting and baking. But sometimes there’s no getting around shopping when you find something that’s just such a perfect gift you can’t pass it up. Here are a few I’m having trouble passing up this year.
Nearly anyone who’s ever come into McNally Jackson on my watch and asked for picture book recommendations gets a list including The Quiet Book (I like The Loud Book too, but it didn’t quite capture my heart in quite the same way). I saw a poster for the holiday follow-up this year at BEA, waited with ‘bated breath for copies to come to the bookstore, then mentioned it hopefully to Lynne in case “there are extras lying around the office.” There weren’t, but darned if she didn’t find me one anyway.
The Christmas Quiet Book has all the gentle, sweet magic of the original The Quiet Book, along with the extra heart-tugging joy of page after page of things that are so exactly like my childhood (and continuing) experience of December that I nearly started blubbering while reading it. My sister is going to lose her cool when she reads it to Elder Nephew Oliver.
I am trying to remember how I came across this Etsy shop earlier this year, but however it was, I wound up buying prints of a meerkat and an otter dressed up in their best finery. Here’s a sampling; prints come in different sizes and range from $10 up. There are also some zombies for you undead freaks, and folklore nuts like me will find portraits of Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and Babe.
Okay, so I don’t actually have this on my list for anyone in particular. If I’m honest, it was a gift I bought for myself back in October. But if you know anyone with an appetite for the bizarre and a love of that place where oddball collecting and natural philosophy intersect, look no further. Jake Limberleg would have loved this book. He would’ve lobbied heavily to write the introduction.
Nathan and I are expecting, and I really want to make little Boris or Natasha’s first Christmas stocking myself, but these are seriously messing with my resolve. I mean, look at those little faces. So now I’ve been trying to figure out who else I know that needs a stocking. Stop me before I decide to get them for the dogs just to be able to have them for might-as-well-be-my-own.
Nathan has read the entire Aubrey/Maturin series like four times. I got as far as about the fifteenth book a year or so ago then life got in the way, so I restarted them again this October and I’m back up to number five. It was this series that inspired The Left-Handed Fate, my 1812 nautical fantasy (Fall 2014!). They are–I do not exaggerate–fabulous. They are exciting, they are hilarious, they are heartbreaking. Did you miss the point where I said they are hilarious? At times they are read-out-loud-to-whoever’s-in-the-room hilarious. And my McNally chum Steve Colca, who also happens to work at the series’ U.S. publisher, W.W. Norton, put it beautifully when he said he found them to be some of the best stories of male friendship ever. But did I mention they’re super-exciting? And also hilarious?
This is the one going to some young friends of mine: a few that I think are going to enjoy reading it aloud with their parents and a few that I think will adore reading it all on their own. The description explains that it was Laurel’s homage to Edward Eager and Edith Nesbit, and it took me right back to reading Half Magic as a kid. Except, of course, it’s more than just an homage; Any Which Wall has magic of its own in abundance, as well as whimsical illustrations by Leuyen Pham.
This is going to Younger Nephew Phero, primarily because I think it will make his parents laugh their tails off. Didn’t finish Moby-Dick in time for your holiday Massive Book Club? No problem. Pick up one of these beauties and have all the salient points covered for you in a flash, one word at a time. Plus, the illustration of Angry Ahab is really not to be missed, and his leg gets its very own page.
It’s winter, therefore The Dark is Rising. Enough said. (Although if you require a lengthier explanation, it’s here.) Get the set for someone who loves fantasy and mythology and beautifully atmospheric writing, and then tell that lucky recipient to start immediately with the second book, from which the series takes its name, then go back to Over Sea, Under Stone afterward. Nothing’s lost by reversing the order of the first two, and everything is gained by reading the book The Dark is Rising right now, between Midwinter and Twelfth Night, when the events of the story take place. Now if only it would flipping snow…
And of course, since it’s a these-make-great-gifts post, it wouldn’t really make sense for me not to remind you that, you know, The Broken Lands was just listed on Kirkus’s list of the 100 best teen books of 2012 as well as gift round-ups from sites as varied as From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors and Adafruit, and The Kairos Mechanism comes recommended in BoingBoing’s Gift Guide (I suspect, but cannot confirm, that there might be a link there whereby you can get The Kairos Mechanism for five bucks from McNally Jackson if you also purchase The Broken Lands). And there are also some potentially fun gifties in the way of thank yous to be found in the Arcana Shop right here. No big deal. I’m just saying.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and in general the happiest of holidays to all, with love!
Yes, I know this isn’t about me. It’s about raising money for the Community Foodbank of New Jersey. But look: I want to be useful. And in this context, I am useful if someone (or a few someones) out there in the world are excited enough about getting a signed set of The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and The Kairos Mechanism that they’ll whip out their preferred means of online payment and bid like auction-crazed fools. The winner will be donating to a great cause, and will get three books with my scrawl in them, any one of which would make a really attractive doorstop or coaster. Here are some other things you can do with them:
I have worked retail for like fifteen years, people. I can do this all day. They also make pretty good reading. Even Kirkus says so. But seriously–check out YA for NJ. A ridiculous number of very exciting folks have put up some very exciting books and services to thank you for helping out. Bid here on my books, or scroll through the many, many offerings on the table and find the just-right reward for you. But don’t wait too long–the auction ends on December 7th.
Erin Bow is a much faster runner than I am, so I was pretty easily caught and tagged it. I had not heard of this “Next Big Thing” thing, but among my favorite pastimes is to talk about the writers and books that I love, and since this appears to be basically the point of the game–one person talks about his/her next project, then tags a few others in hopes that they’ll talk about theirs–I am so totally in. First of all, I am a big fan of Erin and Plain Kate, and I’m thoroughly intrigued by her description of her next book, Sorrow’s Knot (you can read about it in her post here). But the three authors I’d like to hear from are Laurel Snyder, Chris Moriarty, and C. Alexander London.
Laurel Snyder is the author of books for young readers of all ages, but I knew of her from her middle grade novels Penny Dreadful and Bigger than a Bread Box. We subsequently discovered a mutual love of poetry, bourbon, and Edward Eager, as well as the fact that when she and I are both in Baltimore, we can theoretically walk from my sister’s house to her where her folks live. Most importantly, I love her writing. I love it on a sentence level and an emotional level, and I love her storytelling.
I was first introduced to Chris Moriarty‘s books by my husband Nathan, who got so annoyed that I wasn’t getting around to reading her adult sci-fi novels Spin State and Spin Control in a timely manner that he proceeded to read them aloud to me during a driving trip to visit his parents in Missouri. (It is, therefore, Nathan’s fault that Cohen, the A.I. who’s a major character in the Spin novels, is high on my list of fictional crushes.) Chris’s first fantasy for young readers, The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, came out last year and is fabulous. It’s set in a re-imagined turn-of-the19th/20th-century New York in which magic is regulated by the NYPD Inquisitor’s Office. I’m hoping I can pester her to tell us a little about the sequel, which comes out next spring.
Lastly (but only because I went in reverse-alphabetical order), I call upon C. Alexander London, author of the Accidental Adventures. I heard Sandy talking about the inspiration for these books at the Baltimore Book Festival earlier this year, and it went something like this (cribbing a bit from his blog): he was a journalist traveling overseas, and happened to be in Rangoon during a period of protests during which the government shut everything down, and although he was sort of smack in the middle of his own adventure, at the time all he wanted was to be home and watching T.V. And so was born the idea for a brother and sister who keep having these inconvenient adventures when really they just want to veg out on the couch. He is also from Baltimore, although we have not yet established how many backyards separate his childhood home from my grandparents’ house.
Oh, yeah, and I’m supposed to talk about my next book, too, right?
Greenglass House. I’ll admit I’m up in the air about the title, and I’m looking forward to discussing it with my editor. We shall see. It comes out in Spring of 2014, so we have time to figure that out one way or another.
Milo’s parents run a ramshackle inn in the city of Nagspeake, an inn that mostly caters to smugglers. Since the frozen river means it’s a slow season for running contraband, usually Christmastime is quiet, so when guests suddenly start arriving on the first day of winter vacation Milo is both annoyed and confused, especially since none of them seem like the inn’s usual clientele. And, of course, they all seem to be keeping secrets.
Where did the idea come from?
Last summer a few members of my critique group decided to try a project where each of us put a short prompt into a hat. We all drew, and I got Lindsay Eland‘s prompt, which was stained glass. I began with the idea of a big old house with a collection of stained glass windows and decided to set it in my beloved city of Nagspeake, in the district called the Quayside Harbors. Once I knew that’s where the house was, I knew there would be smuggling involved somehow. That part of Nagspeake is just crawling with smugglers.
What genre is the book?
It’s a sort of puzzle-mystery with a folklorey, hinting-at-the-fantastic gooey caramel center.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie?
Oh, good grief, I have no idea. I never picture them that way. I’m way more likely to imagine about who might illustrate the book, if I’m lucky enough to have illustrations for it, but I still have too much work to do on the manuscript to daydream about that yet.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It was sold by my agent at Scovil Galen Ghosh via proposal earlier this year to Lynne Polvino at Clarion Books, who also edited The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands.
How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Well, I wrote the first fifty or so pages in about a month. It sold to Clarion in May, but I had to spend the summer finishing up the publication of The Kairos Mechanism and preparing for the launch of The Broken Lands, so I wasn’t able to go back to Greenglass House until mid-September. I turned in the completed initial draft to Lynne in mid-November. I expect to have a lot of work to do in revisions, though. It’s short, but it’s a very intricate story.
To what other books would you compare it?
Well, I was inspired very much by The Westing Game, Evil Under the Sun, and Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t know whether it’s going to be like any of those things for anyone but me, though. I guess we’ll see.
What inspired you to write it?
Lindsay’s stained glass prompt, mostly. It turned out to be tied into the world of The Boneshaker and very intimately linked to my other upcoming book, The Left-Handed Fate (Holt, Fall 2014), but I didn’t know either of those things until this fall when I came back to it having done a lot of work on The Broken Lands in the meantime as well as having written The Kairos Mechanism and revised the heck out of the proposal for The Left-Handed Fate. I think if I had had to sit down and finish it before all those other things, this could’ve turned out to be a very different book. In the end, though, it owes its entire existence to Lindsay Eland and the words stained glass.
What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?
I think I’m going to follow Erin Bow’s lead and let you read a bit. Here’s the opening page.
There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you are going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.
You shouldn’t make it a habit to ask too many questions, for one thing. And you probably shouldn’t be in it for the money. Smugglers are always going to be flush with cash tomorrow or next week when they find a buyer for the eight cartons of fountain pen cartridges that write in illegal shades of green, but they never have money today. You should, if you are going to run a smugglers’ hotel, get a big account book and assume whatever you write in it, the reality is, you’re going to get paid in fountain pen cartridges. Which (if you’re lucky—you could just as easily get paid with something even more useless) at least means you’ll have ink so you can keep track of all the money you aren’t ever going to see.
Milo Pine did not run a smugglers’ hotel, but his parents did. It was an inn, actually; a huge, ramshackle mansion called Greenglass House that sat on the side of a hill overlooking an inlet of harbors, a little district built half on the shore and half on the piers that jutted out into the river Skidwrack like the teeth of a comb. It was a long climb up to the inn from the waterfront by foot, or an only slightly-shorter trip by the cable railway that led from the inn’s private dock up the steep slope of Whilforber Hill. And of course the inn wasn’t only for smugglers, but that’s who turned up most often, so that’s how Milo thought of it.
Milo had lived at Greenglass House ever since he’d been adopted by Nora and Ben Pine when he was a baby. It had always been home. And he was used to the bizarre personages who passed through the inn, some of them coming back every season like extended family that showed up to pinch your cheeks at holidays and then disappeared again. After twelve years, he was even getting pretty good at predicting who was going to show up when. Smugglers were like bugs or vegetables. They had their seasons. Which was why it was so weird when the huge old bell on the porch, the one that was connected to the winch that drove the railway, started ringing.