The Persephone Effect

I celebrated my six month anniversary (or Vancouversary, as Andy put it) on April 17th. Technically, had flights not been delayed resulting in a night spent in purgatory, i.e. Toronto, that date would have been the 16th, and so this week it’s been on my mind a lot.

I left mid-October, leaving snow in my wake. Snow, I should add, that’s still there. It’s been one of the longest and harshest winters that my home town has had in at least a decade if not longer. More like the winters of my youth and worth fleeing. It’s put me in mind of the Persephone myth (though without the abduction and rape at least).

Vancouver is hardly hell, of course, unless you count its drivers. I am increasingly humbled by its zealous verdancy. How’s that for fancy vocabulary? Seriously, it’s green here, technicolor green. Even in what passes for winter here, you get greens and then in what passes for spring here those greens go fractal starting in February. You can’t count ‘em all. Vancouver is the visual artist’s paradise, offering up a botanical palette that is anything but stingy and it so often grows despite this city and its inhabitants. It’s hard not to grab people, and flail, “Why don’t you understand how beautiful this place is? Whhyyyyy?”

My gratitude and bewilderment at all this teeming beauty still catches me in the throat. So I take pictures instead of accost Vancouver locals. I hoard those pictures, too, worrying that this lushness will end, and post them irregularly, fearing hometown reprisals. (Only half kidding, there.)

If it’s not the underworld, then, it certainly doesn’t feel like real life. There are the pantomimes of real life — a job with long hours on my feet and work that cuts my hands to ribbons, bills to pay with those meager earnings, weather to plan around, cat boxes to muck out, laundry to do — yet all these things have sidestepped the progression of time. They happen all at once in an undifferentiated existence. And it’s down to not having a winter. I’m sure of it.

Winter is inevitable and no one from Northern Ontario needs George R. R. Martin to tell ‘em that. It’s something you dread and reluctantly prepare for, buckle down and suffer through, and its inevitable demise finally celebrated. Add a notch, you’ve survived another one! A year has passed, one that you have either seized or let slip, and they keep coming, years and winters, pulsing under the skin like the sound taiko drums.

Without winter, it feels like I’m still dancing after someone cut off the music. I’ve had to find my own beat again, so I’ve been quiet, been thinking. Been doing, too, and getting better about it. Trying on several beats, see which fits me best.

It strikes me that I write a lot of these getting better posts. I do, and am, but looking back I see a pattern of small steps up a very long staircase. I listen, I learn, I internalize, but I am very slow to process and make changes. I can know something intellectually, but being brave is harder. But I can see so much more of the stairs behind me than in front of me now, and I’m not afraid to hold the railing as I go up anymore. That’s what it’s there for.

I am my own Persephone, and it is time to return to the summer lands.

Unexpected (and Unwanted) Downtime

I’ve just had a very expensive vacation. Two weeks off work because my spine had decided, rather aggressively, that it was through with all this bipedal shit and was going to let me know in the most painful way possible. Add to that prescription meds (which never killed the pain entirely) and physiotherapy (which is worth every penny), and February is pretty much a complete write-off. Wrote in snatches here and there but little of it useful, and managed some reading. I’m not happy with the productivity dip, but no point haranguing myself, either. (At least, that’s what my rational brain tells me. I’m not very good at listening to her.)

It has been expensive and frustrating. Jury’s out on whether or not it’s a nerve or a disc at the root of the problem, but overall things are slowly improving. I’ll take better. I’ll damn well take better over tears, I tell you what. Hell, I can sit now. There was a week of no sitting. Sitting is fantastic.

Any thoughts I’d had about applying to Paradise Lost — something that, frankly, holy cats could I use right now — are dust. Next year’s dreams.

As for submissions, while I’m sure this will seem modest or quaint to some, I’ve hit a personal best. I have five stories out at various places and recently got a very nice rejection from C.C. Finlay, editor of the upcoming Fantasy and Science Fiction August 2014 issue, on that unsellable story of mine. (Some day, story! Some day! *shakes fist*)

My goal this year is to beat the number of submissions I made last year by a wide margin. I’ve only been submitting stories since 2009 and generally it was one story here, one there. On a graph it would be a very flat, horizontal line. Then it bumped up to maybe 4 or 5 a year and never more than two stories. Last year I submitted eleven times, and so far, halfway through February, I’m sitting at seven submissions. (I’m taking the Until Hell Won’t Have It motto to heart.)

Today’s efforts will be to add a sixth story to my submission roster (and it’s gotta be now, as the deadline for this one market is tomorrow!) and I am hoping that after next week’s writing group meeting, I can bump that number up to seven. Looking at the numbers, I guess I’m on track for a 1 Sub/1 Week pledge, tho’ I will shy away from making it official.

Do better than last time is all I can ask of myself right now.

Rules to Work By

I am writing this on my laptop.

Not an unheard of thing, you might think. I do like my new-to-me MacBook Pro, which I purchased from a friend about a year back to replace my battery-swollen original MacBook. The Pro is my little go-to buddy, the one that gets to go outside, because the inside computer is my lovely iMac in all it’s 27-inch glory.

The iMac is currently convalescing in the Apple Store after its third failure within a month. Hard drive replacement. Getting it there was uncannily like bundling up a recalcitrant pet for a visit to the vet. I’ve known this was coming for a while — increasingly frequent failures that required me to rebuild from backups — and I’m happy that the worst is over. It’s fixable, it’s affordable, and soon I’ll have my desperate, grubby hands all over it. Better, once it’s fixed, I can trust it again. Its absence, even with the laptop playing pinch hitter, has been felt deeply, which is a reminder to me to not get so knotted into my routines that I can’t be flexible.

In the meantime, new mini challenges for myself for the year ahead!

  1.  250 words of writing every day — no excuses.
  2. Rejected stories go back out within 24 hours (i.e. next day).
  3. Critiqued stories must be edited before the next event (generally two weeks).
  4. The to-be-read pile will be obliterated this year; no new books purchased until then.

The writing must be fictional, preferably on a WIP (novel or short story), though I will allow writing exercises as substitute if I really cannot brain that day. (And sometimes, such non-brain, non-WIP exercises end up being rather fruitful.) The 24-hour turnaround is a modification of an Uncle Jim rule, which is never to let a story stay overnight. It’s not always practical for me to get it out the same day as a rejection, but I was good before the move about getting out the next day. Back to that habit again. (Still have two out, very long time, but with the markets in question I have no idea if it means anything, and a third sent out earlier this month.)

The critiqued stories, particularly short stories, are my shame. I have a half dozen things I’ve gotten feedback on but then I let the stories sit un-edited. No longer. Under the new rule, it gets two weeks to be polished/revised and then it starts getting submitted. Or I get second set of eyes, and then it gets another two week reprieve. We’ll see how this works.

And my books. Oh lord, all my books. I want to be able to say, “Why, this book by so-and-so, newly released, sounds delightful. I would like to read it this instant.” But the guilt. Oooh, the guilt. I can manage the TBR pile, I think, over the course of this year. (I will be ruthless, though; if I don’t like it, I won’t slog through it. But there’s a lot in that pile to be excited about, too, so I’m hopeful I won’t have to do that often.)

These are all the little rules, put in place so I don’t have to think about what has to happen next. Small steps forward I can work on every day because I have big projects that need all the mental muscle. No more hiding behind the move out here, or computer failures, or waiting to finally “settle in.” Recommitting to the writing, 100%, is the act of settling in. Nothing else will serve.

What does that mean? I will start querying STAR DOOR in the next couple of months, so the final edits must be completed, query and synopsis written, and agents researched. And if I’m serious about Taos Toolbox, I need to get that application together pronto. All other writing and editing will all work around those primary goals.

One more thing — every time I get an email notification telling me that someone has favorited or commented on the stories I’ve posted to and Archive of our Own, I beam. Huge grin, leaves me floating. It’s a long fic, it’s multi-fandom, and it’s not to everyone’s taste, so when people do read it and like it, especially so long after it was posted, it totally brightens my day and adds a drop to the confidence bucket. Thanks. Smooshy hugs to all of you.

All Those Sexy Books

My reading took a hit this year.

This is true if you look at the books read. I set a modest goal of 40 books, and beat it by six. On the whole the list was nearly split 50/50 with fiction and non-fiction, same for gender. It felt like a lackluster year for books, but I’m not sure how true that is. Here are my standouts, books I would gladly recommend?

Looking over my list, the year started off bright — Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Suzanna Clarke was frankly brilliant. It didn’t feel like a huge book, while reading it I mean. It’s the size of two bricks, yes, but reading it is a flurry of enjoyment. Watership Down by Richard Adams, right on its heels, was immensely moving. A rough patch followed, until I hit the non-fiction book that read like fiction Between Silk and Cyanide, written by World War II codebreaker turned screenwriter Leo Marks. I suppose it’s a cliche to be fascinated with this period of history, but here I am. Stieg Larson’s The Girl Who … series took over my brainspace for March in a weird and wonderful way, and I can’t even tell you why. A few more speed bumps and then I hit House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. That was a book I ran round raving about, pushed on to unsuspecting friends. Still will, if given the opportunity. Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin brought her series to a fantastic conclusion. Book of Tongues, book one in the weird west series by Gemma Files, hooked me (I’m on to the sequel now). Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine utterly, utterly had me. Loved that book and had I read in the year it was published I would have been hard pressed to say which I liked more, it or Jo Walton’s Among Others. (I love both, but they are very different books.) The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was very good, and started a spell very similar to my Stieg frenzy. To Write Like A Woman by Joanna Russ was, as expected, profound, powerful and maddening, though I did like How To Suppress Women’s Writing more. Rounding out my favorites were Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl and Steven Brust’s The Sun, The Moon and the Stars, a gift from a fellow writer that I would recommend to every writer even though the characters are all artists. Hell, because they are artists, you should read it.

But the one thing that list on GoodReads tells you is how much unpublished short fiction I read between May and October. I have no idea if it would be a lot compared to others who slush all the time, but for me it was huge, over three hundred stories, some only a portion, that squeezed out my free reading time for those months. It was probably more short fiction than I’d read in the last two years combined. (Maybe more — I love anthologies but rarely squeeze in what’s currently being published.)

So, there’s the year in review — better than I thought. Normally I keep an up-to-date list of what I’m reading as I go, but after the move I fell out of the habit. The poor page hasn’t been updated in a couple of months (though I am current in GoodReads, of course) and I am wondering if I just shouldn’t leave that tally there and only discuss particular books here that I am all Muppet-flaily about. I’m leaning that way — it’s not like that page gets any traffic, either the live one or the archived ones.

The goal, as ever, is to have a balance of fiction, non-fiction, and how-tos. Currently, I’m on to A Rope of Thorns (File’s Hexslinger #2), The Ramen King and I by Andy Raskin, and Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer which is, indeed, a wonder.

Not a bad start to 2014.

Obligatory Post is Obligatory, Yet Useful

For the last several weeks, I’ve been dreading writing this post.

I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet these last four years, faithfully the last three, about my writing progress. More than just a word count tracker, I also keep track of blog posts, free-writing, editing, critiquing, what projects I work on, even things like time of day and my mood. I added a new column this year to track how much slush I was reading every month. I do this because without it, I can’t see anything. No data. Nothing to encourage, nothing to reprimand. Discovering that tracking my activities spawned more of those same activities was my first Writing Hack and one I don’t forsee stopping anytime soon.

Which is why I knew I was not looking forward to reviewing this year’s efforts.

At the beginning of December, I took a hard look at the numbers. Last year I wrote over 200,000 words, and that included a novella and two whole novels, one a first draft, one a complete rip-the-stuffing-out-and-start-the-bear-over-again draft (it’s third). I felt like I had passed a major productivity milestone, and that I would meet it again this year.

So the temptation, a few weeks back, to flog myself for my paltry 85,000 words, was high indeed. I decided that I would do whatever it took to hit 100,000 words by the end of December because it’s a big round number that will make me feel good despite its inherint meaninglessness. Those words included two short stories, new material written for one of last year’s novels that were written whole-cloth, the last 30K of the second novel, and 25K on something brand new that my brain demanded I start as a safe escape from editing a novel I was afraid to give myself over to entirely.

And beat it I did, December 30th, while set up in the library for a proper marathon session. Better, the words didn’t suck. Best of all, it reminded me that I could even do it in the first place.

Here’s a second number: 200,000 words. That’s roughtly the count of the pages of my own work that I went over and edited — all the tweaking, rebuilding, polishing, gnashing of teeth that went into making THE STAR DOOR passable for beta readers. (To me, these aren’t fresh words written. Bits were added, others taken away, and in places it was all finickey work. I counted multiple passes on the same material, too.)

And it wasn’t just editing that kept me from new material. I slushed 382 stories from May through October — some read straight through and mulled over, others discarded quickly based on obvious flaws — and that took up a lot more time than I expected it would. The marching orders were to send through only stories that I absolutely loved. Did I learn a lot? Yes and no. I learned just how many ways that stories can break and what makes them work for me. Learning that, though, meant I anguished quite a bit over perfectly fine stories that I didn’t love wondering if the editors would. Inversely, seeing a story I loved get rejected, was nearly as crushing as if it had been my own submission. I started questioning my own taste, my own gut, and that shook my confidence. I left the post after the move. My turnaround times for critiques lengthened and the job I landed once arriving has longer hours, plus a communal commute. Termites all, chewing into the limited wood of my day.

And, of course, the move itself. What an event, equal parts adventure and nightmare, over a month with none of my belongings and rocking both jetlag and cultural dissonance. It took time to recover; in truth, I’m still recovering, but I can see the progress now and it gives me strength.

Plans, I haz them. Not just squishy hopes and maybes but specific, actionable tasks.

I’m really looking forward to 2014. Hope you are as well.


PS: Books of last year post is forthcoming! Because BOOKS.  

The Fellowship Of The Things


So. Yeah.

Many weeks ago, I updated with a little bitty post consisting of, “Oh my god, my stuff! My stuff! Where is my stuff?”

On the five week anniversary of the company taking my stuff, and the three week anniversary of it being past due, my belongings completed The Fellowship of The Things, having crossed the Canadian version of Mount Doom and apparently dropping my tea pot’s leaf basket into what passes for Mordor around here before making their collective jumbled way to me. (I probably woke up at night screaming MY PRECIOUS when it happened.) It’s all Hobbits crying and jumping on beds now — because let me tell you, five weeks on an air mattress tests patience and backs alike.

Everything is at last here, everything has survived, including the Beast, the iMac I veiled in an entire role of anti-static bubble wrap, pillows and polar fleece blankets. And I’m surviving. Everything’s not in place yet, and better posts are forthcoming. But for now, I am snugged in my flannel sheets in my very own bed, surrounded by my books and my tchotchkes.

That will do for now.

This Will Be Hilarious Three Months From Now

I am crazy-mad sick. I haven’t been this sick in several years — stone-solid congested, blowing my nose like a trumpet at a jazz festival — and I’ve not decided whether the dampness is helping or hindering my recovery. Certainly the ocean humidity has helped with my allergies, but the cold? Too early to tell. Still, this is the best time to get sick if one must. I’m not interrupting any set plans, I’m not missing work. Strangely I’m reading less, but that’s probably the headache from the congestion interfering with that.

And then yesterday, on my two week anniversary of arriving in Vancouver, I get the call from the shipping company. They’re coming tomorrow, I think as I answer the phone, sick but suddenly buoyed by what the call means. I can unpack my stuff this week, Mike and I can set everything up at last, and it begins!

No, actually. My things haven’t left Ontario yet, the nervous yet exceedingly polite dispatcher tells me. After emails being sent to the person who set up the transaction triggers another call from the dispatcher I learn, hours later, that my things haven’t even left Sudbury. He will call me next week, or I will call him, to get a new delivery estimate. Call him, he says, because my file has been sitting on his desk for five days and he is the one most familiar with it. They still haven’t found a truck to put my meager belongings on, so small a delivery that they can’t ship it alone.

This was not the news I expected to hear.

Crushing? You bet. But hilarious anecdote material when I’m a few months removed from now. I was delayed flying out, one of my bags was put on a later flight twice and was delivered to the door, and now my things will be delivered anywhere from one to two weeks later than their original estimate. I’m like a cross-country Goldilocks — my baggage being delayed the ‘just right’ size, I suppose. In the end my original flight delay, while a pain in the ass for me, was better for the cat who’d had a rough ride from Sudbury to Toronto. She needed the break. Perhaps the same will be said for my stuff. We shall see.

Besides, I’ve lived without my stuff for many a month before — just then I knew what I was getting into. At least I have Internet this time, my laptop and my cat. (Plus a roommate who has been all kinds of awesomesauce to me. I am the luckiest of ducks.)

This does mean that my edits for STAR DOOR remain in limbo, as all the paper-related material for the novel is still two thousand kilometers away. (The little nagging voice is pretty strongly suggesting that might be a procrastination-enabling fib on part.) Meanwhile, making slow but steady progress on the new novel that I shouldn’t be writing and I have some crits on tap. My slushing’s suffered this month, but I’m trying to catch up.

And NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow. I’m tempted to throw my hat in there, give me the push I need to unfunk, unfuck my habits and headspace. Can I do 50,000 words that don’t suck? Not entirely, I mean, or no more so than a regular first draft? Best to try and fail, I think, then not try at all. It’s not like I have much else to do, eh? Clothes I can wear to office-y interviews? Yeah, they’re in Sudbury with everything else.

Guess that answers that question. NaNoWriMo AHOY!