Category Archives: Writing

Bridge-building

The website is back up! I had some hosting issues; sorry about the downtime. This post dates to June 1st.

#

I hate first drafts. Writing them feels like trying to bridge a canyon with telekinetics; you lay a plank down on thin air and step on it, willing it not to drop you into the river. Even if you make it to the other side, the whole non-structure might collapse when you look back.

The thing is — unlike with bridge-building — you can trample over a finished draft and fill in the missing structures. I finished the provisional draft for my Malice Years[1] novel about two and a half months ago, and last month I went back to start a major restructure.

I am having a wonderful time with it.

I take structure work in two parts: in-frame, or the events in the novel, their causes and effects, and how they shape into a coherent story arc (e.g. plot logistics and character arcs); and out-frame, or facts about the world that influence the shape and feel of the novel but don’t figure directly into the story (worldbuilding stuff like maps, economics, and demographics; character backstories; and cultural set dressing like language, clothes, and food). In-frame work drives the story and makes it stronger, but the out-frame stuff is necessary for verismilitude and to make sure the story has a sensible context.

I get bored with the minutia of worldbuilding, so I try to stick as close to the in-frame work as possible. But it’s fascinating how these things intersect. For example, a chain of questions I’ve been working to answer:

What causes the random rebellion in the later third of the novel? -> Well, first I need to know what government is being rebelled against.
What sort of government exists in the city? -> I know a few facts about it, most notably that it’s the remnant of a much-larger collapsed authoritarian empire. But,
What sort of government did the empire have, and how much territory did it encompass? I know it encompassed the entirety of the main character’s known world, which amounts to a single continent; but travel in this universe would allow for knowledge of other continents, which suggests Pangaea. Which led me to,
Is it feasible to have a stable pan-Pangaea nation? How big would it be? What would it look like? How would it have come about?

This resulted in a month-long sojourn in the geography, religion, ideology, and political history of the world. I got to learn a lot of things about how the Earth builds and breaks itself and about how authoritarian regimes function. Now that I’ve found my way back from the winding road, though, I’m happy to return to elaborating the missing bits of plot.


[1] Lookee, it has a title now! Sadly, it is a series/universe title for what is supposed to be a more-or-less standalone novel.

Malice Draft 1 is finished!

Or rather, draft 0.5 of the novel that doesn’t even have a proper provisional title. My first draft is always more of a glorified outline that points out everything problematic about my initial conception of the project.

It’s clocked in at about 72,000 words (for the uninitiated: 75,000 words is a SHORT novel, too short for the fantasy genre unless it’s YA), which has me estimating the fleshed-out Real Draft 1 at around 100,000 words (the short end of average, for fantasy that isn’t Game of Thrones-style epic). About 60-65,000 of those words were written in Mongolia, with an additional 20,000ish words of outline when I reworked the plot in December.

The good:
– I can write in Mongolia! Keeping to a regular schedule has been really, really difficult for me here. I’ve been averaging slightly under 2,000 words a week here, where in the States — for the last three years! — I’d kept to a relatively steady 1,000 words a day. It’s good to see the words building up, however slowly.
– I have a solid outline to work from. The main characters are more or less fleshed out, even if their arcs kind of wander off into the sky somewhere around the draft’s halfway point; I know the major sticky points in worldbuilding and plot logistics.
– For the first time ever, I’ve *finished* something novel-length, and it’s (more or less) shaped like a novel!

That said, I’m not really satisfied. I never am, not by a first draft. I get to the end and I look back at all the things that don’t work with equal parts irritation and eagerness to dig back in. Coming as it did in 500-word fits and spurts, the completion of this draft is even less exciting than usual — I never really built up a consistent momentum to keep me enthusiastic about the story. Still, I’m pleased with the draft insofar as it goes, and I’m looking forward to the first rewrite.

What’s next?

While I’ve got a pretty good idea of what needs fixing, I’m going to set the first draft aside for a month or so, so that I can look over it with fresh eyes before coming up with my next plan of attack. I’ll probably do some worldbuilding, outlining, and character work when I do come back to it, rather than jumping headfirst into the next draft.

In the meantime, I’m going to be working on a strange secondary project I set up shortly before coming to Mongolia. I’m expecting it to be novella-ish length and I don’t quite know what it’s about, aside from sentient houses. I can (hopefully) finish that first draft within two or three months, and then return to the Malice project.

Invisible Things, Part 2: Viable Paradise

In the last post, I asked: At what point do you stop calling a problem situational and acknowledge that there will always be a situation?

I’ve had a few of those points in the last six months, and the bulk of these posts are going to address how my anxiety manifested in Peace Corps and how I’ve dealt with it in that context. But for this post I want to rewind a bit further, to talk about the first time I was ever part of a community[3] that discussed mental health openly and without shame.

VP XVIII students and instructors: the post is over a year owing, but this one’s all for you.

#

In June 2014, I was put on the waitlist for the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop, a competitive sci-fi/fantasy workshop that takes place on Martha’s Vineyard every October. It’s one of very few SFF workshops that looks good on a cover letter (at least for a year or so). It lasts a week and is led by big names and bedrocks of the SFF community: Steve Gould, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Dr. Debra Doyle, Jim MacDonald, Steven Brust, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and Sherwood Smith were the instructors my year[1].

Within a few weeks of being put on the waitlist, I received a second email. One of the invitees had dropped out; was I still interested in participating in the workshop? I took a few hours to stop bouncing off the walls and typed back an enthusiastic yes.

And then I took a few hours to be tremendously intimidated.

At 22, I was the youngest person attending the workshop. I’d just graduated with a B.A. in English. I did not have any publishing credits or even submissions to my name. When Steve Gould asked me, casually, if I’d ever tried to submit my workshop story, I stared at him with bugged eyes and narrowly refrained from asking outright, “I can do that?” (I think I substituted the slightly more worldly, “How do I find markets?”) I was not a part of the SFF community at that time. I’d never been to a con, I didn’t have any friends who were submitting to SFF markets, and my online interactions were pretty much limited to lurking silently on the blogs of authors I liked. In my mind, I was thoroughly outclassed, in terms of age, of life experience, of publications and connections. I was not a “real author”, whatever the hell that means — in hindsight I’m well aware that the SWFA, an MFA program, a casual reader at the bookstore, and a hardworking but still-unpublished writer are all going to give you different answers.

So that was my mindset going into the workshop: thrilled, but absolutely terrified. I remember my heart pounding as I sat on the ferry from Woods Hole to the island; I couldn’t focus on a single page of my book to read it. What if there was another VPer on the ferry and they came to talk to me? Worse, what if there wasn’t, or if there was and they didn’t? What if I couldn’t find the staff car once I got off the ferry? What if, what if, what if…?

Needless to say, I got off the ferry just fine, found the car, and got a ride to the Island Inn. All the staff and instructors were there already, along with a good number of my fellow students. I hung out in the staff room and did my best to socialize, but after a little while my nerves got the better of me — did I sound stupid? ignorant? snappish? reserved? — and I fled to my room. I wrote in the travel journal I’d brought and turned up my music loud enough to drown out my thoughts. When my roommate came in, I removed a headphone long enough to tell her that it was nice to meet her and I needed some quiet time; I simply could not imagine having a normal conversation at that moment.

(Many <3s to Shveta, who figures large in this post and the story it's a part of, even if I don't always say so explicitly.)

That evening, after dinner, we had icebreaker games. My group played Mafia, a game I was already familiar with and quite fond of, and I loosened up enough to participate pretty vocally. At one point I accused a fellow VPer of a suspicious smile, and at once he protested vehemently, “I can’t help it! It’s my anxiety!”

My brain halted.

You can do that? I thought, bewildered. Just say it? Just like that? And everyone just nods and — where’s the hush, the seriousness, the wary concern? Not here? Not now? We all just — nod and move on? The room became a little bit safer: That’s one less barrier here, one less thing forbidden to speak of. And a lot scarier: I don’t know how to talk about mental health. What if I say something wrong — no, what if I don’t say something and I’m supposed to — and I hurt somebody?

I couldn’t answer those questions, and I didn’t know how to ask them out loud. So the game went on, and I kept playing.

#

A lot of Viable Paradise’s sessions are dedicated, of course, to the craft of writing: drafting, critiquing, revising, submitting. But a lot of what I took away from the workshop had less to do with craft, and more with surviving the long game of a writer’s career.

It’s a strange sort of person who’s drawn to write SFF professionally. You’ve got to have a keen interest in psychology, anthropology, philosophy — the way people’s brains work, the way the world works, the way both could work if things were just a little different. You’ve got to be disciplined enough to write when you don’t feel like it or don’t think you have the time, passionate enough to care about what feels like your hundredth revision, and gutsy enough to tell yourself your work is getting better when it’s received a dozen rejections.

That sounds wonderful, but it means that a fair number of writers are downright driven — they prioritize their writing success above their relationships or their health. “I crashed and burned because I wasn’t taking care of myself” is a regrettably common anecdote. And there is a documented correlation between arts professionals and mental health problems, though its nature is debated.

The instructors at Viable Paradise did not ignore this. Over and over, within the smaller workshop context and in terms of general advice, I heard the same things: Make sure you eat. Get enough sleep, even though there’s a lot you want to do. Exercise[2]. Socialize, or grant yourself quiet time, as you need. Take care of yourself. Stay healthy.

If you aren’t healthy, you won’t be able to write.

Mental illness was, for the first time in my experience[3], a topic on the table for discussion, instead of a shadow spoken of quietly behind closed doors. It loomed large in the stories, in the sessions, even in conversation, but it was not an object of fear. It was something a lot of people in the room lived with openly and addressed constructively; it was a fact of life.

“Talk to someone,” Scott Lynch said, in a Friday afternoon discussion dealing with depression and writers’ mental health. “Get help.” Mental illness is treatable, but it can take you down, and it will if you don’t address it. The resources are out there.[4]

#

Near the end of the workshop comes the infamous Horror that is Thursday. I will spare the unitiated any gruesome details, but for comprehension purposes I have to share this much: You have three days to write a story. This story be read by your classmates. The idea is to show that most writers at your level are, in fact, capable of dashing off something halfway decent in a pretty short timeframe.

I agonized over my Horror. Narrative structure is not my strong suit, and I run long rather than short. I have a developing sense, now, of how many words a concept needs — but I gained that after and as a result of attending the workshop. I started a novel, backtracked, ran out of time to rewrite, froze completely, and was pretty much dragged out to dinner Wednesday night when my roommate Annaka saw how badly I needed to calm down. I still didn’t manage to finish, and turned in an incomplete draft I very much disliked.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not that important,” several people told me consolingly. And in the big picture I knew that. It was the connections I made and the skills I learned that mattered; and anyway, by Thursday we were all exhausted and only the really good stories would stick in people’s minds. But I couldn’t get over this jittery, terrified sense that I had failed somehow and was going to be judged for it (it didn’t help that my story was read by Bear, whom I was slightly in awe of, and a student who’d just recently gotten her first book signing, though both of them said very nice things). Here the whole idea was that we knew enough about writing to speedily compose an interesting if shitty draft — and I couldn’t do it.

I was a mess of nerves. I toughed it out until our afternoon break. I couldn’t sit still, but I couldn’t think straight long enough to decide what I ought to do instead. For about an hour I wandered around the main conference room pretending to read people’s stories, then hurried to the staff room to try and help with dinner. I lasted about twenty minutes into the meal before I pled a migraine and fled to my room, where I curled up on the couch for the better part of two hours in an anxiety- and exhaustion-induced daze.

#

The story I submitted with my application was about a woman had cheated on her dead husband being harassed by a ghost whose husband cheated on her.[5] Grief and guilt obviously figured large in the narrative, but one thing that had never occurred to me — one thing that several critiquers pointed out — was that the main character might be suffering from depression.

Those comments stuck with me, coming as they did on top of the mental health talks. (I admit I don’t remember the exact commentary now, a full year out from my last submission of the revised story; but it had to do with some small giveaways in the main character’s thoughts and behavior, and came in the context of a criticism or suggestion for revision.) My first thought: Woah. That’s what that looks like? How’d that end up in there? Should I keep it?

Then I thought: I dunno if I can write that. I dunno if I have a right to. If I’m, I dunno, capable of doing the research right to make it feel authentic to people who actually have depression.

And then, on Thursday night, after I’d recovered somewhat in my room: Fuck. I can write that, can’t I? Something is wrong and I…I can write about it. In this story. Maybe. Or am I just, like, overwhelmed by all the discussions and taking on something I don’t actually understand? I mean, why would I ever think I understood depression well enough to write about it?

I never really reached a conclusion on that point. I tried a draft which ended with the main character asking to see a psychologist, but that wasn’t the point; it undermined her casual belief in the ghosts. If depression lived in the story, it was underneath the surface, driving Holly to do stupid things without ever being acknowledged. And where I was pulling that kind of pain from, what was driving me to write about it — I didn’t know how to acknowledge that. I don’t think, in hindsight, that I was depressed, although I was very unhappy with my circumstances; but I was in the midst of a dialogue about it even as, for the first time in my life, I confronted a huge load of fear and shame at the idea that something might be wrong at me.

And so, sitting alone in a quiet room feeling so afraid that I wanted to cry, I asked myself, timidly, Is this normal? I don’t think this is normal.

#

So Viable Paradise did a lot to shift my sense of what it means to take care of yourself, and why (on a purely practical level) it’s important. It really was the foundation for many of the habits that I’ve since developed. I suppose the question remains: If I suspected I had a problem more than a year ago, why didn’t I try to follow up on it then?

Part of the reason is that I simply had no idea how to talk about it. I had a very overwhelming experience where mental health was discussed in a safe environment, but it did more to bewilder me than to clarify what I ought to do — it was just too much at odds with the silence I was used to. I bit my tongue because I didn’t know how to speak up or who to reach out to; then the workshop was over, and I went back to Buffalo, and my contact with all the people I’d met was limited to critique emails and the occasional Google chat. Viable Paradise was eye-opening, but it was never intended to provide an entire framework for someone to understand and cope with mental illness.

And honestly, I still didn’t want to believe that I had a problem anybody could identify and help me out with. I was still saying to myself: I’ve never had a panic attack. I’ve never slept for days on end. I’ve never wanted to hurt myself. I’ve never had a breakdown, and whatever’s going on, it’s never really stopped me from doing what I want to do. I’m okay, really. This will pass. It’s just a tough situation.

The excuses were wearing thin, but…look. When your issue is characterized by irrational and incomprehensible nervousness to the point of genuine fear, you’re thoroughly intimidated by authority figures (like psychologists!) and by the mere hint of an idea that your friends might not support you, and you have no clue what to do with the idea that your brain might not work like you think it does? The idea kind of spirals until you’re terrified, and the only thing you can do is look the other way and pretend it never occurred to you in the first place. In an environment characterized by shame and solemnity, if not outright silence — which was the case in most public situations, although I knew I had friends addressing struggles of their own — it is really, really difficult to accept that you might have a problem and you might need to talk about it without feeling totally ashamed and helpless.

#

Again, for the sake of caring people, I am going to end with a firm note: This was a year ago. This is not the way I am feeling now. I’ve moved past that and, to be quite honest, I have no desire to return to it and rehash it. I’ve included this post as part of the larger story because I think it’s really, really important to acknowledge what a difference it makes to have a supportive and explicit social culture, and because I want to give credit where credit is due. I’ve moved on. This story will, too.

#

Oh, and a final note for Twitterers: I’m on hiatus from Twitter while I’m in Mongolia, with the exception of blog autoposts. I won’t see any replies to my Tweet about this. Please share and discuss as much as you like; but if you want to get in touch with me personally, you should either comment here or shoot me an email (reneenmelton at gmail).


[1] I realize this doesn’t really add context for those of you who aren’t well-read in the SFF genre. All of these people write or edit books for a living and have been published multiple times. Their publications include bestsellers and/or many solid books over the course of a long career.
[2] Or, as Bear put it, “Your body is not a meat-puppet.”
[3] To be perfectly clear: I have many friends who have struggled with mental health on some level at some point in their lives. Most of those friendships predate this workshop. I have no doubt that any of those friends could have been a source of support or at least information for me. But they never said, and I never asked. Because even when my close friends would have been accepting and understanding, the wider community (at its smallest, my larger circle of friends and acquaintances; at its largest, the American public as a whole) presented a front of silence, non-understanding, and fear. It’s hard to get away from stigma entirely. And even in friend groups that were largely supportive, there was often worry, frustration born of the impossibility of perfect empathy, sorrow where empathy did exist, and guilt. I did not want to cause any of that for anyone. Before this workshop, I had never been in a situation where mental health struggles were normalized.
[4] Do any VP18ers have quotes or recordings from that talk? It made a huge impression, but for the life of me I can only remember the general tenor of what Scott Lynch said, and I think I’m conflating specifics with some stuff he’s written online.
[5] It was a solid journeyman-level work — got the point across without being remarkable in concept or execution — and has been shelved indefinitely after several rounds of revision/resubmission.

Settling in

First off, and unrelated to the rest of the post: This week is the 19th year of Viable Paradise, the SF/F writer’s workshop I attended last year. Missing my fellow VP 18ers and wishing lots of fun, enlightenment, and whiskey upon this year’s attendees!

October 30th will mark the end of the first quarter of Mongolia’s school year. It’s hard to believe I’ve been at work for almost two months — the time has flown. I’ve gotten a lot busier as I settle into my routine (hence the lack of posts last week — I desperately wanted to write a VP-related post but needed sleep more).

Here’s what I’m doing in the day-to-day:

I wake up around 6:30, get dressed, eat breakfast, and work out if I have time.

Between 7:30 and 9, depending on my schedule, I leave home. It’s a half-hour walk from my apartment to my school. When the cold gets bitter I’ll probably take a taxi or the bus, but for now it’s a good time to relax and prep mentally for the day.

The secondary school day is divided into 7 periods and lasts from 8am until 1:30. Mongolian teachers’ schedules operate more like a college schedule in the U.S.: you’re expected to be at school when you have class, but can go wherever when you’re not teaching. I show up for the first hour penciled in on my schedule and stay until the last — sometimes this means I’m there all morning and into the afternoon, but other days I only have one or two classes. During the school day I plan and teach lessons with my counterparts, do grammar, writing, or speaking one-on-ones with them, take Kazakh lessons from one teacher, or — if I have a blank hour in my schedule — practice my Kazakh with non-English-speaking teachers and work on my own lesson plans.

My schedule isn’t fixed, because my CPs want me to work with different classes, but I teach about 5-6 40-minute periods a week (10-12 counting lesson planning), do 2-6 hours of Kazakh/English exchange, work through maybe 2-3 one-on-ones, and spend 1-2 periods planning for afternoon classes.

Some afternoons I teach as well: one teachers’ methodology class and two concourse (graduation exam) classes. In the next few weeks I should also be starting an English class for non-English teachers and at least one English club for students. If the class is after 3, I usually trek home for lunch, but if I have an earlier class I eat at the school canteen (which serves хуушуур. only хуушуур).

After class, I go home, finish my workout, and write a little bit if there’s time. Two evenings a week I hold an English class for police officers, and I usually spend two other evenings prepping. Sometimes one of my CPs invites me over for dinner or just to hang out. I try to be in bed by 10:30.

On the weekends, I write, clean, and cook for the week (cafes are a thing here, but instant meals aren’t, so home cooking is a must). I chat with my next-door neighbor, if we’re both around. Some weekends all of us PCVs will be in the aimag center, in which case we hang out!

In two weeks, however, we have the semester break, and I’m told I won’t need to attend any of the teacher development classes happening at the school. I admit I’m looking forward to the break: while I’m working slightly under a 40-hour week, the wide spread of my classes (in terms of scheduling, type, and level) and the chaos of an unpredictable schedule are leaving me a little bit tired.

writing while abroad

Today is my first full day of Staging in San Francisco. Hopefully I’ll have time to sketch out a post about it before we fly out Friday morning. In the meantime, let’s talk writing!

In October 2014, I attended the Viable Paradise writing workshop, where I learned about story structure and long-term career strategies. Since then, I’ve mostly worked on short stories. Short stories are self-contained, relatively quick to write, and easy to submit to online markets. They’re a good tool for learning the fundamentals of my craft[1] — basic story structure, compelling characterization, clean prose, a drafting/revision process, etc.

For the next few years, I’m returning to long-term projects. This is partly because I won’t submit to paying markets while overseas; I can’t guarantee access to the internet or a printer/scanner, physical mail will take weeks or months to reach its destination, and (most relevant) the Peace Corps does not permit volunteers to work for alternative pay sources during service. I don’t want to write stories only to have them sit on my hard drive for two years — especially since I’ll want to re-revise them after that long in the trunk.

But it’s also a stability thing. On average, I draft about 5k a week — a full (and fairly lengthy) short story. I’m juggling three or four projects at any given time: drafting, researching, aging it in a drawer, trading critiques, revising, line-editing — bouncing between different-stage stories to keep my eyes fresh. The reason I learn so quickly is that I have to reassess my progress every week in order to decide which project is the best use of my time.

This was manageable when I was working a job that didn’t require a ton of creative energy or critical self-assessment, but in Mongolia the majority of my attention is going to be taken up navigating a foreign culture and new responsibilities. I need something I can plug away at for weeks or months at a time. So: the novel.

I have two projects to work on over the next year or two. The major one rehashes a very bad year-old outline. In its world, people protect themselves from an invisible plague called malice by installing ward-sigils on their houses, roads, and vehicles. It features a vaguely scary as-yet-underdeveloped governmental authority, dinosaurs, zombies, and badass freelance ward-artists. I’m spending a lot of time picking my brain about class systems, the existence of institutional “non-persons”, and the power of fear and people’s unthinking instinct to conform to the perceived reality their society projects.

I’ve also got a weird little thought experiment about sentient houses who protect people from their worst selves. It’s a little bit moralistic and it’s shaped like a folk tale — I’m not sure which of those two caused the other. It looks like it’ll be around 20k when it’s finished (which, for the non-writers in the room, is rather a difficult length to sell), but it’s unusual enough and coherent enough for me to keep puttering with. I don’t like it, yet, but it intrigues me.


[1] (Granted, a lot of these fundamentals function very differently in a long work vs. a short one. The structure of a novel is obviously a lot more complex than that of a short story, and my process of building it changes as a result. But every story needs a beginning that introduces just enough information, a middle that develops in a deliberate way, and an ending that feels conclusive; and ‘framing’ a story — excluding ideas and characters that fall too far from the key developments of the novel in order to make the story feel cohesive — is a universal necessity.)