Friday, March 28, 2008

HOW I WRITE - Part IIIA - Example

Well, so I _did_ manage to write 1500 words of the "noir" piece (I'd aimed for 1000), and did read half the novel. Also walked six miles (the weather is still beautiful for walking outdoors--especially in the evening) and spent an hour researching hotels on the Isle of Man, to say nothing of going wih my husband to buy a sofa. What I _didn't_ get to were about forty emails awaiting attention, but hey, you can't do everything. What you _can_ do, though...

The following piece was originally written as a letter to a friend; later, when a magazine asked me to do an essay on what was either my Best Day or my Worst Day as a writer, I tidied it up a bit for the purpose.

Busy Day

Copyright 2008 Diana Gabaldon

[This was originally a letter to a friend, later rewritten as an essay for a writers' magazine.]

The Best and/or Worst Day of my writing career? Geez. Well, I've been doing this for nearly fifteen years now, so we have a wide array of days to choose from.

There's the day I finished writing my first novel. Like giving birth, but no stitches, and you get to sleep as long as you want afterward. _Tres_ cool.

There's the day my agent called to tell me that of the five editors he'd sent the manuscript to, three had called back with offers. Definitely a Good Day--though in fact, I was so flabbergasted that I felt as though I'd been slugged with a sandbag, and went around feeling surreal for about a week.

There's the day one of my books first hit the NYT list--though I heard the news from my husband when I staggered off a plane from a three-week book-tour, and was therefore somewhat too fogged to thoroughly enjoy it.

"Yeah?" I said (as I recall). "Oh. Good. Who am I?"

Bad days. Hmm. Well, I distinctly recall throwing a basket-chair down the staircase a few years ago, while bellowing, "Will you all just LET ME ALONE FOR _FIVE MINUTES_!?!", though I don't recall the specific occasion.

And there was last week, when I arrived at JFK from a book-tour through Germany, Amsterdam, Sweden, and Finland, totally exhausted, and experienced forty-five minutes of being the ball in a game of Mousetrap--with half the pieces missing. (I'm _never_ landing in that place again, never!)

And then there's tonight, when I returned from a long day of booksigning at 11:30 PM--to discover that Room Service's "All Day Dining" ceases at 11:00.

Really, though, most days in a writer's life don't consist of Big News or Major Annoyances. Most are more like... of THOSE Days, beginning with angst and trauma in the morning when the little one couldn't find her violin

and the middle one was so conked his father couldn't rouse him and

had to call for assistance (I have a secret method; I toss back the

covers and get him by the feet, then play "This Little Piggie" on

his toes. This aggravates him enough to get him upright and

snarling, at which point he can be levered out of bed and into his

closet), and the big one wasn't happy with the way her hair looked.

Having gone to bed at 3 AM the night before, getting up at 7:15 left me a hair short, even on my usual rations of sleep. I also ached in every limb, having fallen off the staircase the day before (don't ask; it had to do with the FAX machine and the fact that I'd been writing. I was still writing in my mind when I came down and‑‑apparently‑‑not aware that I couldn't levitate. Actually, I apparently _did_ levitate for a short distance, as I ended up on

knee and elbow some six feet from the foot of the staircase) and

freshly strained my shoulder reaching for something.

I rallied round, though‑‑found the violin (by the simple

expedient‑‑which drives everyone in my family completely mad‑‑of

asking "Where did you see it last?"), combed the big one's hair

into a ponytail (had to make her sit down on the edge of the bath

to do it; she's four inches taller than I am), tied the middle

one's shoes, and ran upstairs to write notes to two of his teachers

(he had the flu, on and off, and missed six days of school, with

consequent assignments. Problem is, he's too shy to go up and ask

any of his teachers for a list of what's missing).

The boys from next‑door‑but‑one came and knocked‑‑they'd

missed their bus, could I take them to school? (no good asking

where _their_ bloody parents are. There's a reason they live

_here_ half the time). Loaded up everybody, picked up my purse to

get in the car, when the housekeeper beetled out and said we're out

of X,Y,Z, especially washing powder.

Dropped the kids‑‑adjuring Sam sternly to be sure to deliver

notes to his teachers‑‑went to the drug store, where I got all the

cleaning supplies and checked for the homeopathic flu cure my friend John recommended (felt a sore throat coming on). While driving to and fro, kept thinking of snow (no good reason, it's about 85 F. here). Went home, delivered the window cleaner et al, came upstairs and spent my usual hour having breakfast (Diet Coke and Milky Way Dark) and reading/answering messages and E‑mail, seeing in the back of my mind footprints dark on the snow, and heaped wet leaves, crusted with ice, the dark furrow in the leaves where someone had been lying under the shelter of a log.

Set in to work as usual at 10, stoked to the gills with

Vitamin C and occilococcinum. Read through a half‑done scene in

progress, added a couple of paragraphs, then was overcome by a new,

vivid image‑‑I was following the footprints in the snow, and there

was a dead hare, caught in a snare, furred with ice crystals, stiff

across the path. Switched to a new document and started the new scene, to get it underway. Fell into the state of mind in which I walked off the staircase, feeling the worry of the woman following the footprints. Why didn't he stop for the hare? Where is he?

Settled nicely into the first paragraph, when comes the

dreaded summons from the foot of my stairs, "_Es un hombre a la


Hombres at the puerta are always an intrusion, but usually

brief, as in Fed Ex or UPS, now and then the exterminator or the

man from the feed store delivering horse pellets (this is a _large_

nuisance, as I have to go collect all the dogs and shut them in the

garage, then go round and open the big gates into the backyard for

the truck to come through).

This time it was an hombre from the phone company, come to fix

the FAX machine's line (cf. staircase, above). Showed him the

miscreant FAX, helped him track the phone line‑‑which had been

installed by one of my husband's programmer employees, back when he

had his office in that room‑‑then left him to it.

Reminded of phones, checked for messages (only one phone in

the house rings, for reasons I won't go into; this means I normally

don't hear it from my office‑‑a Good Thing, on the whole‑‑so I'm in

the habit of checking the voice mail once every hour or so).

Message from my father, wanting to know when girls are off school

so my stepmother (bless her heart) can take them to have their hair

cut. Message from person wanting to sell my house for me (ignore).

Message from person wanting to come and demonstrate anti‑burglary

system (ignore. Inside dogs have finally quit barking at phone

person, but he's gone outside, and outside dogs are now having

hysterics. There's a reason we've never had burglars, aside from

the fact that we haven't got a lot of stuff anyone would think

worth stealing, unless you count the collection of PlayStations and GameCubes. If anyone wants to come steal my ancient XT clone, they're welcome to it; it's insured). Message from librarian in Salt Lake City, wanting to confirm that I am coming to speak at a conference in Snowbird at end of May, and can I do the dinner speech, too, they'll pay me extra.

Minor panic. _Did_ I agree to go and talk to people in Utah

in May? Rustle through tray of speaking/workshop engagements.

Evidently I agreed conditionally (hint: never throw anything away,

and when you talk to people on the phone, write down on their

letter what it is you told them), provided I didn't have to go to

BookExpo. Think suddenly that I don't _know_ whether I have to go to BookExpo.

Telephone editor, who is out, but get her assistant, who

promises to find out for me about BookExpo. Return to work, get as far as lyrical description of shadows lengthening under the trees,

turning from vanilla to chilly violet and then cold blue on the

snow as the sun goes down. Get up to open balcony door, as it's

getting rather warm in office. Phone hombre comes inside to ask

where main phone‑line panel is. Luckily I know this (from earlier

phone adventures in this house) and go show him.

Go upstairs. Come downstairs at once, as Airborne Express

hombre has arrived with parcel to be signed for. This proves to

contain a dust jacket proof for new book causing mingled

interest and panic (said book being in a state of severe

incompletion upstairs). Set proof on kitchen table and stare at it

for awhile in attempt to decide whether I like it or not, while

feeding bloodworms to fish and newts who live on table. Put fresh

seed and water in parakeets' cups (if the dogs don't announce a

burglar, the birds will, noisy things).

Leave cover proof to marinate in my subconscious and go

upstairs. Finish sentence about shadows, start worrying about the

man out hunting, why hasn't he come back? Is he walking his

trapline? Go look at book on animal tracks, find out what hare

tracks look like in snow. Take passing note of ferret tracks,

various bird prints. Check Roger Tory Peterson field guide

(pausing to wonder whether constant exposure to this in my field‑

work days is where I got the name "Roger." Hope not, as I've met

RTP, who at the time was rather a pompous old geek) to be sure that

kind of bird would be in North Carolina in winter.

Federal Express hombre arrives, bearing mysterious box labeled

"Norm's Gourmet Mushroom Garden." Unable to put this aside, open

it to discover that my sister has sent me...a mushroom garden for

Christmas. Roughly a foot‑square chunk of rot, oozing brown liquid

inside a plastic bag. I am assured (by the enclosed directions)

that if I remove the plastic, spray this object with water, set it

in a pan of same atop a chunk of wood and leave it in a quiet, cool

place where it gets roughly 6‑8 hours a day of diffuse light, it

will sprout shiitake mushrooms.

Put mushroom garden on downstairs desk, where I will not

forget it (next to large pile of bookplates waiting to be signed,

which I will make every effort to forget, but my husband's secretary is coming round Monday to make sure I don't), and go upstairs, feeling pleased that I have ordered an Archie McPhee potato gun for my sister for Christmas.

Sit down and re‑read the six sentences I have onscreen,

sinking back into scene. How long will I/she wait before setting

out to look for the missing man? It's dark outside, it's getting

colder. She's stoked up the fire, but her hands are still cold.

Dinner is cooking, but she doesn't feel hungry, and the scent of

food doesn't comfort her. If he's had an accident...Phone rings

and I hear it, for a wonder. Editorial assistant, informing me

that they don't know yet whether I should go to BookExpo, but they've changed the date and it isn't 'til mid‑June, so I can go to Utah if I want.

Meanwhile, husband arrives downstairs, complaining of acute

pain in foot, asking a) did I remember to buy him wart remover, and

b) do I want to go and eat a hot dog with him? Answer yes to both,

and go to eat Polish sausages with sauerkraut and mustard, while

discussing whether I should go to Utah in May. Upon finding out

that they're offering me $1000 to come and talk to them, husband

agrees that I should, and remarks casually that he has always

wanted to build a kit plane.

Return (in car, I find myself crouched behind a screen of

rocks and twigs. There are Indians I don't recognize, passing in

single file through the wood a few feet away. Their faces are

painted, and they're moving in the direction of the house I just

left) to find that another Federal Express hombre has come by, but

missed the housekeeper, and instead left a delivery notice on the

door. Go upstairs, quickly download and skim messages, then sit,

list in hand, and try to organize rest of day. Phone rings; in‑

laws inviting us to come over for dessert after supper. Phone

rings; woman in Alabama wanting to get hold of autographed copy of

new book for Christmas present for sister. Explain politely that it isn't finished yet, suppressing various uncharitable remarks that come to mind when she exclaims, "But why NOT?"

Little one comes home from school. Have five minutes to make

her a snack, listen to her report of her day, and sympathize with

her teeth (she needs orthodontia, and we've just had the first

spacers put in yesterday), then go to collect the older kids from

their school.

Discover that son hasn't given teachers their notes. Grasp

him metaphorically by ear and drag him off to beard teachers in

their dens. Extract lists of missing assignments from two, but find

third one has already left for day.

Decant everyone at home, distribute food and drink all round,

load up little one, who wants to come with me, and set off for

afternoon errands‑‑feedstore, to buy nosebag and two hundredweight

of oats for elderly horse who isn't getting his share of the

pellets, Alphagraphics, for new shipment of bookplates, and grocery

store, because we are out of necessities like milk and tunafish,

and because little one is holding a Christmas party next day

(that's TODAY), at which she and six friends intend to decorate

cookies, among other things.

Return home, having discovered in the car that the Indians are

indeed sinister, being Mohawk far from their home range, raiding

for purposes unknown (has this got anything to do with Father

Alexandre, the Jesuit missionary whose flesh is weak, and whom

we'll meet a good deal further on?). Cook dinner, slug down more

homeopathic flu remedy and Vitamin C, go off to dessert at in‑laws.

Return (she's found him, denned up in a cavity under a pile of

brush. The Mohawk are being stealthily followed by a small band of

Tuscarora Indians that they _do_ recognize). Superintend massive

homework while baking ten dozen sugar cookies ("You know," remarks

my little one, who is (haha) "helping" me bake cookies, "I feel

kind of bad." "Your teeth still hurt?" I ask. "No," she says,

"but I was just thinking, I'll be in bed in a little while, and

you'll still be baking cookies. I feel kind of guilty about that."

While feeling gratified at this evidence of developing conscience,

I assure her that that's perfectly all right, I _like_ baking (I

do, but), and dash upstairs to find Sam a black marker with which

to prepare visual aids for a presentation on current events).

Oldest daughter comes out to ask whether I can type her

Constitution for the nation she is designing in school, as she is

a very slow typist and overwhelmed with work tonight. Assure her

that I can, and take document up to park by computer, where I will

not forget it.

Tuck people in bed. Take more anti‑flu stuff, while listening

to husband tell me how exhausted he is. Tuck him in bed, eat a

bowl of rice and leftover Chinese beef from dinner, drink more Diet

Coke, and go upstairs to work at midnight.

Answer a few messages, play one game of Solitaire, discover I

am falling asleep, lie down on floor and nap for an hour. Wake up,

but can't stay awake‑‑get a sentence or two down, but discover it

doesn't make sense. Decide flesh and blood has limits, and stagger

downstairs to lock up, check kids and animals, turn off lights,

feed rabbits and hamsters, etc. Heading for bedroom when I realize

I have not typed Laura's Constitution, which she urgently requires

for class next morning.

Unlock office, go upstairs...came down at 2:30, took more

Vitamin C and passed out. Net result, writing‑wise, being that I

have maybe 300 words actually _written_, which would be

discouraging (and is) in view of my 2,000 word goal, but I _do_

know a heck of a lot more about what's going on than I did in the

morning, and in fact, I didn't stop writing all day.

So I'll get there, eventually. If I don't die first.

And that's the truth about writing: A good day is any day when you get words on the page. A bad day is when you don't.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

HOW I WRITE - Part III - "Finding" Time

HOW I WRITE – PART III – "Finding" Time

I had a gynecologic checkup this week, and while chatting with the doctor—whom I've known forever (her office was across the street from an independent bookstore, back when OUTLANDER was released, and when she darted in on her lunch hour for something to read, the bookseller pressed OUTLANDER on her, mentioning that I frequently came by to sign stock. The doctor glommed the book, came back, and told the bookseller to let me know next time I came in that she'd be delighted to give me a free Pap smear. [g] (Like I said, this business does sometimes have unusual compensations))—she told me that she was working on a book herself—nonfiction.

"But I'm not getting anywhere with it," she said, shaking her head. "I have all the material, and a good outline—even a couple of chapters! But it's just so hard to find the time to work on it."

This is a pretty familiar story. I can't tell you how many people tell me this—meanwhile expressing admiration (or disbelief) at the notion that I've written all these monstrous books while having children, working, or whatever. I had one good friend at the university where I used to work, who was fascinated when I got published (I kept working there until 1992, when DRAGONFLY came out), and decided that he wanted to write a novel of his own.

Now, David had a wonderful story. It was something based on the history of his family that had taken place in WWII (they were Polish Jews) and it was fabulous; had everything: romance, betrayal, tragedy, adventure…but—

"I have two consulting contracts to finish," he told me, "and this seminar I'm teaching, but as soon as the semester's over, I'll have a good chunk of free time—I'll start writing then."

"David," I said, looking at him sadly, "you're never going to write that book."

And he never has, alas.

See, the fallacy here is that you must have "a good chunk of time" in which to write. The fact is that "a good chunk of time" (one free of interruption, obligation, or sudden change of circumstance, in which one "sits down" and focuses on the work at hand) does not exist.

GABALDON'S FIRST AXIOM: You do not "find" time. You make time, or you don't have any.

So, how do you make time? Well, this is a rare and specific skill, akin to spinning straw into gold, but I do think anyone can learn to do it, even if your name isn't Rumpelstiltskin.

I am about to demonstrate this particular skill—it's 11:15 AM. My husband has just come home—I hear him rattling around downstairs (well, more like banging; he's replacing a junction box in the wall right under me), and will shortly want lunch. What I have to do today is to write 1000 words (more or less) of a "noir" crime short story, and finish reading the novel I'm supposed to review by this weekend.

I have (probably) twenty minutes before my husband's hunger overcomes his hammering. So—do I continue with this blog entry (which would be fun, but can be continued tonight or tomorrow)? Do I go outside and pull weeds out of my garden? Do I wander downstairs and make conversation with my husband between hammerblows? Do I go collect the dry-cleaning that I mean to take in this afternoon? Do I think what to cook for dinner tonight?

No. I post this, pop over to Word Perfect and work on the "noir" piece until Doug comes to get me for lunch.

The dry-cleaning and the weeds can wait indefinitely, I'll talk to Doug while we have lunch, and as for dinner, I know I have the makings of beanie-weenie on hand, should inspiration fail. What has to be done now is write.

So I will. [g] It doesn't matter that I don't have three uninterrupted hours. It only matters that I have now.

Friday, March 21, 2008

In Which I Digress

Sorry—didn't mean to go off and abandon you (and poor Willie) in the Great Dismal Swamp [g]. Had to pause and do a lot of Stuff, though; three books waiting for cover quotes, a new book for review, a short story (no, really!) to be written for an anthology of "noir" crime due this month, further Really Cool artwork from Hoang, needing to be examined carefully and commented on, panel by panel, three high-school and college students wanting me to provide them with information for papers on "My Favorite/Most Influential Author" (this is flattering, but distracting)—I really should make up some kind of standard packet for this; I get a rash of such requests every spring, when it dawns on said students that May is looming and they haven't even started on their papers—a flurry of travel arrangements (me being the de facto travel agent for the family)—kids coming home for Spring Break and Easter, Doug and me going to the UK in April (more on this, later), a couple of local appearances, and a rash of email interviews.

I do a lot of interviews, what with one thing and another—and one question that seems to be a favorite with a lot of interviewers—they being fascinated by the apparent contradiction (well, they think it's a contradiction) of my having been a scientist and now being a novelist, is, "How has your life changed?"

Now, to be honest, I always figured this was a) a pretty stupid question ("Well, I used to teach and run around forests, and now I write books. Duh?"), and b) a symptom of laziness on the part of the interviewer, who had plainly not read any of my books, knew nothing about them or me, and couldn't think of anything more interesting to ask. I know they're just hoping I'll blather on sufficiently for them to pick up some interesting detail or quotable line; I've certainly never seen any material like this in a published interview, or c) is code for, "So, are you Rich and Famous now? Tell me some juicy details of disgustingly conspicuous consumerism I can quote." ("Well, I used to cook spaghetti for dinner four times a week, but nowadays we mostly eat at Vu or L'Orangerie…oh, and did I mention my brand-new Audi S6, with the Lamborghini-Gallarda V-10 engine? It's blue." (In all honesty, my husband's favorite two meals are spaghetti and beanie-weenie—followed closely by macaroni and cheese. He'd be perfectly happy to eat these in rotation all week, perhaps with pancakes and sausages for a treat on the weekend.))

Still, I always make an effort to answer just about anything anybody asks me (a conditioned response from decades of teaching and motherhood). So—ways in which my life has changed:

1. I don't—thank God Almighty!—have to get up at 7:00 AM every day. Probably the greatest benefit of doing what I do is being able to work in accordance with my own biorhythm, rather than in answer to some insane morning-person's notion of a universally desirable schedule. (Spring is also Career Day season; I'm always asked to go talk to various school classes about the chief benefits of being a writer. These would be Not Getting Up Early, and Not Wearing Pantyhose to Work, though the teacher in charge always looks a little startled when I tell the kids this. I don't know what the heck they think would be a good benefit.)

2. Dress. The first thing a man does upon quitting work to write full-time (or for any other reason, come to that) is stop shaving. Women buy sweat-pants. I used to work in sweats, but the fact is that I live in a desert and have a husband who still fortunately looks at me on occasion. Sweats are Rather Warm, and tend to cause adverse comment on the home front when worn for more than three days running. When I work up in Flagstaff (I inherited my old family home up there, and escape up to the mountains a couple of times a month to write by myself), I wear…well, actually, I wear pajamas until I feel hungry enough to go out for lunch, and then I put on the most comfortable available thing. At home, though, I normally work in jeans and a Foxcroft (aka non-wrinkling) cotton shirt in some bright color. This is comfortable, but sufficiently attractive as not to make my husband recoil, and sufficiently respectable as to allow me to answer the door without making the FedEx man blanch and drop his package.

The other side of Dress, though, is the public aspect. Now, this isn't a big problem for authors until and unless they get published. At that point, the specter of Promotion raises its grinning head, and the hapless author is suddenly confronted by the problem of what to wear whilst addressing the local Friends of the Library, or appearing on the local cable-channel's book-discussion show.

(You don't wear red on TV, and you don't wear things with busy small patterns, and you really don't wear black-and-white checks. Neither do you want to wear a white shirt/blouse, because it casts unflattering shadows on your neck. Ideal is something blue or violet, or something in the rose/mauve/pink line. Tailored or draped is fine, but avoid ruffles or anything fussy. OK to wear jewelry, but make sure it isn't the kind that swings or rattles, and don't wear too much of it. You do want to learn to do at least basic makeup, because most TV stations no longer make up their guests, and you will look dead if you go on without blush, concealer, and eyeliner, at least. This is not hard; go to a department store on Saturday morning, and have somebody at the makeup counter "do" you, so you can see how. It ain't rocket science.)

3. Books. You get to read and call it work, and BOOKS ARE TAX-DEDUCTIBLE!! (Theoretically, this applies only to books you use as resources in your own writing—but given the kind of indescribable stuff I write, that's pretty much everything, including THE PLEASURES OF THE TORTURE CHAMBER, THE SEX LIFE OF THE FOOT AND SHOE (which provided the genesis of Mr. Willoughby), and THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY (cf., Willie, above).)

4. Public Life. I don't cite this as a benefit, so much, but it's one of the more obvious ways in which life changes when you become a professional novelist. See, most people have only one life: their marriage, their family, their job, their religion, their hobbies--and one life is frequently more than most people seem able to handle, judging from the stuff one sees on Jerry Springer.

In order to become a writer, though, you have to develop a whole new life—an interior life, where it's just you and the page and the people inside your head. The difficulty often lies in balancing this second life with the first one. I know a lot of people who say they'd like to write a novel, but who just can't manage to carve time and energy out of their first life—and never do. I also know a lot of people (though fewer, and all men, for obvious reasons) who are now divorced, because they went too far into their interior life, neglected their mates and families, and are now left, red-eyed and unshaven, staring into a computer screen all night.

Well, the thing is, if you're lucky enough to be not only published but popular, then all of a sudden you have a third life. This is your public life—the requests to go on three-week book-tours, to address the local library, to give lectures in Florida, Hawaii, and Alaska, to do radio and cable-TV shows, to do print interviews, to have lunch with readers passing through town who think it would be great to meet you (I once had the president and vice-president of the Arizona Turtle and Tortoise Society turn up unannounced on my front porch and invite themselves in for a chat—nice gentlemen. [g] The president was a fan of my books and had been recommending them to the vice-president, who was visiting from out of town, and as the president knew me from the university where I used to work and knew where I lived…), etc., etc., etc.

And if you don't learn to control and balance this third life, it'll eat both the others alive. On the one hand, you certainly want to promote your book—and you like to talk to readers, and—up to a point—it's fun to travel and see interesting places (though in all truth, you don't see a heck of a lot on the average book-tour save hotels, airports, and bookstores)—but on the other, you really, truly do need to have time in which to take care of your family, and to write.

So if I have to say no to many kind invitations these days—it's with reluctance, but out of a sense of realism. I physically can't accept all the invitations I get—or even half of them—but I do appreciate them, nonetheless.

5. You do occasionally experience things that the average person doesn't. For instance, I spent all of Saturday at the local Rennaissance Faire, judging the Sexy Knees in a Kilt contest (well, so that didn't take all of Saturday; I also wandered round with a friend and my three (adult) kids, marveling at the amazing diversity of human form (all the proof one needs that God not only exists, but has a pronounced sense of humor, I think), to say nothing of the ways in which said humans decorate their forms, and had a very tasty chocolate milkshake)—I'll put up a couple of pictures that a kind fan who was present sent me, on the website.

I spent the first weekend of the month doing a gig in San Antonio (for a trade organization of campus booksellers), at which I met Wally Lamb and Greg Mortenson (THREE CUPS OF TEA)—both great guys—and the second weekend doing the Fountain Hills Library Festival, at which I met Joe Garagiola (also a great guy [g]).

And the National Trust for Scotland did invite me to come to the dedication of the new Visitors Centre at the Culloden Battlefield (in Scotland) next month. So yeah, there are definitely perks to this, the lack of health insurance and 401(k) notwithstanding.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

How I Write - Part II - Logistics


Well, first, a brief digression in re logistics, to answer Midge's question as to how I handle all the bits and pieces. It's pretty simple, really, but it works.

Having started writing far back in the mists of time, when DOS-based programs only allowed one to have an eight-character filename (with a three-character extension), all my filenames are in this basic form: [bookname/number][year symbol].[date], wherein the date is the date upon which I began writing whatever file this is. E.g., were I to begin a new scene for AN ECHO IN THE BONE today, the file would be named JAMIE7&.39. (The abbreviation for each OUTLANDER novel is "JAMIE" [g], and ECHO is the 7th book in that series. "&" is the symbol I've chosen to represent 2008 (2007 was "@"), and today is March 9. Ergo—JAMIE7&.39.) (This, btw, is how I happen to know that I began to write OUTLANDER on March 6 of 1988; the oldest filename I've had is JAMIE!.36. And no, I don't have this file available anymore; it's undoubtedly backed up somewhere, but it's on a 5.25" floppy disk, which is for all intents and purposes unreadable. It wasn't a scene that made it into the finished book; just a half-page or so of a young man arguing with his sister while she chopped vegetables—just a place to start, in other words. So I've been at this for twenty years—my, time flies when you're having fun! [g])

OK, so we've got filenames. Now, I never leave the computer without backing up what I'm doing to an external medium—these days, that's usually a USB jump-drive. NEVER. (And I keep whatever word processor I'm using set to do automatic backups every 90 seconds; I hate losing work). But once a week, I set aside an hour or so to do formal housekeeping. This involves:

1. Making a P-file. This is a "printfile"—just a dump of whatever new work I've done during the week. No formatting, no nothing—I just pull all new files (or old files that I've worked on during the week) into a single file and print it off (with the date at the top) and put this in my hard-copy dump. I've luckily needed a hardcopy backup only once or twice in the last twenty years—but nice to know it's there. Any electronic medium can be corrupted in the blink of an eye and without warning.

2. Updating the MFILE. This is the Master File; I have one for each book (or novella) I'm working on. All this is, is a listing of filenames, with a few keywords following it, which will let me locate a specific file. Here's a brief sample:

JAMIE#.42 - Death of Simon Fraser (Wheatfield)

JAMIE#A.42 - same as #.42 (compare)

JAMIE7#.413 - Clouds in the water - follows "Laoghaire"

JAMIE7#.414 - fragment at Saratoga - wolves devouring the dead

JAMIE#X.D8 - beer for breakfast

JAMIE7@.410 - Son of a Witch/Sanctuary

JAMIE7@.54 - Simon Fraser's death - Claire/Dr. Rawlings - Willie's hat

JAMIE7@.511 - fragment/image - rhythms of sex

JAMIE7A.511 - peelie-wallie, fragment - acupuncture

JAMIE7@.512 - fragment/image - Jem and gem, means of navigation

JAMIE7@.514 - Roger and the chapel (goes w/ @.410)

JAMIE7@.517 - Roger's faith (goes w/ @.410/@.514)

JAMIE7@.519 - Claire and Dr. Rawlings, injury to hand (Saratoga)

JAMIE7@.524 - fragment - Roger's faith/father decision (goes w/ @.410)

JAMIE7@.527 - "I'll just mind it more" fragment

JAMIE7@.528 - numbness - "Bruise me"

JAMIE7@.64 - Lizzie's Love-Knot (chapter title only)

["fragment" means it's not a whole scene, but is a partial scene, or perhaps just a kernel or an image that I wanted to catch, but either didn't have time to develop, or it just didn't expand at the time. Additonal letters like "A" or "B" mean it's the second or third scene that I began on a given day (When I'm really rolling, I often have simultaneous things pop up), whereas an "X" means the scene exists under the original name, but something happened with the computer and it wouldn't let me save a later version under the same name (Word occasionally corrupts its filenames, or takes exception to the original file having been written in Word Perfect, and won't let me save unless I rename the file—so I use the original name with the addition of an "X".).]

That's about it. You notice that a couple of files in this listing note that they "go with" one or more other files. When stuff starts sticking together—or when I'm on a roll and writing sequentially—I get files that I know are part of the same bigger chunk. Eventually, all the smaller files get attached to one of the filenames, and that grows into a large piece of 10,000 words or more. At that point, it becomes a "chunk" [g], and I'll likely save it as "CHUNK 2 (rev) – GREAT DISMAL" (for instance). When I have five or six chunks, I can usually arrange them in rough chronological order, and at that point, will probably have a decent idea of the timeline underlying the book. Often—though not always, I'll also see the "shape" of the book at this point.

I have to go and buy bagels for lunch, so will post this for now. With luck, I'll be back later tonight to resume—if not, see you tomorrow!

Friday, March 7, 2008

How I Write - Part I

Sorry to neglect y'all. I hadn't much heart to write for a bit, and then was overtaken by the usual fierce rush of events. Haven't forgotten you, though. [g] I had in fact just been about to answer Midge's questions about how I write, so figured I might as well resume with that:

It's almost impossible (I know from experience) for me to describe coherently what's going on my mind when I write--but fwiw, both sides of my brain seem to work at once.

No, I don't plan out the structure--of a sex scene, or any other kind of scene, let alone the book. [wry g]

I start with a "kernel"--a line of dialogue, a sense of emotional ambiance, an object whose details I can "see"--anything that I can sense concretely. Then I write a line or two describing that, as best I can.

Then I sit and stare at it for awhile.

I put words in and I take them out. I divide the sentence in half and insert a new clause. Decide I don’t like that one entirely, but don’t want to throw it away, so drop it down a line or two and try something else. Move the gerund phrase from the beginning of the sentence to the middle. Etc., etc.—just trying to cast this “kernel” (whatever it is) for maximum clarity and elegance, just in terms of the craft.

OK. While this sort of mechanical work is going on, the back of my mind is busy throwing up a shower of little questions, like a dog digging in sand: Whose viewpoint is this? Where are we? What time of year is it? Are we inside or outside? How is the light falling? Is a storm coming? Am I hot? What am I wearing? Why is my foot tapping? Did someone just say something? What’s that in my hand? I see a face…

And the scene begins to take shape—slowly. Sometimes I have a specific purpose in mind for a scene—I know that William, say, is doing intelligence work, so we need to see him doing a bit of it. So I may think that’s what’s going to happen here…but not necessarily.

Having that rather vague notion in mind, I began looking for a kernel with which to start the writing (the kernel is where I start writing; this doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of the scene; sometimes the writing goes backward as well as forward from the kernel). I know where Willie starts—North Carolina—and I sort of know where he’s supposed to end up--with General Howe (if he gets there. Will he? I have no idea), but I don’t yet know where Howe was at this specific point in time—because I have no idea what the date is when this happens.

Meanwhile, however, I’ve wandered over to my giant built-in bookshelf (where I keep the five or six hundred books of my central reference collection plus the two or three dozen most important references (so far) for this book) to stare blankly at the collection of Interesting Objects scattered along the shelves (lots of crystals, mineral spheres, psychically active (supposedly) stones, a miniature cannon, a tiny crystal castle, a hand-blown medicine bottle with a glass snake wrapped around it, an antique bronze mortar (full of pens), a reproduction 18th-century inkstand with quills, a (real) powder-flask from a set of 18th-century dueling pistols, six pocket-knives, a beanbag octopus, the dried jaws of a small shark…and I happen to spot one of the books, titled THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY.

Well, I read this book some time ago, and frankly, it’s not all that good—not well organized, and the writing is tedious—but just the name “The Great Dismal Swamp”…well, there’s a thing to conjure with.

And I have my kernel—almost. OK. Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp. I have no idea why, mind you, but we can figure that out as we go. What I need now, though, is a concrete image that I can write down in a sentence or two.

Rather than read the tedious book again (at least not yet), I go and google “Great Dismal Swamp natural history”—and pop up an entertaining article with a lot of detail regarding the flora and fauna of the swamp (and a bit of historical detail concerning Lake Drummond, which is dramatic, so I tuck that away in a spare cerebral recess for future reference)…from which I choose the image of swarms of “tiny yellow horseflies, whose eyes reflect rainbows when you get close to them.”

Now, I do recollect from the tedious book—and check it to be sure—that during one or more of the attempts to drain the swamp, a road was built. Excellent. And so…

“ William marveled at the road. True, there were only a few miles of it, but the miracle of being able to ride straight into the Great Dismal, through a place where he vividly recalled having had to swim his horse on a previous visit, all the while dodging snapping-turtles and venomous snakes--the convenience of it was astonishing. The horse seemed of similar mind, picking up its feet in a light-hearted way, outpacing the clouds of tiny yellow horseflies that tried to swarm them, the insects' eyes glinting like tiny rainbows when they drew close. “

Now, mind, this is what the paragraph looks like now. It took me probably fifteen or twenty minutes of fiddling before it got this way—and I may yet mess with it more later, but for now, it’s the best I can do.

What happens next? Well, it’s 4:15 AM, so right now, I’m going to bed. [g] Tomorrow, though, we’ll find out (maybe) why Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp, and how I discovered that.