Monthly Archives: January 2021

Writer craft example–Willa Cather, Song of the Lark

I’m a fairly broad reader in that my reading often covers a range of genres and purposes. I like reading a variety of works, though graphic details and too dark a setting and story usually ends up putting me off and not finishing what I’m reading.

Most of the time I tend to be a pure reader–that is, I’m reading for enjoyment. But there are times when my reading enjoyment extends to savoring a rather deft piece of writerly craft. I’ll end up rereading those sections and enjoying them because I appreciate the effect that the other writer is trying to achieve. Sometimes I’ll even study it deeper, thinking about how best to apply that to my own work.

I had one of those moments recently, while reading Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. The protagonist, Thea Kronberg, is on the brink of breaking through as a top opera singer. She’s visiting with her long-term lover Fred Ottenburg and a life-long backer, Dr. Archie, when The Call occurs–essentially, the climax of the book. And the way that Cather handles it is just–marvelous. See below. Note: omniscient point of view. And Sieglinde is the part; Walküre the opera. Different formatting conventions from a different era.

******

Fred caught up the telephone and stopped the buzz while Thea went on talking to Dr. Archie about Landry. Telling some one to hold the line, he presently put down the instrument and approached Thea with a startled expression on his face.

“It’s the management,” he said quietly. “Gloeckler has broken down: fainting fits. Madame Rheineckler is in Atlantic City and Schramm is singing in Philadelphia tonight. They want to know whether you can come down and finish Sieglinde.”

“What time is it?”

“Eight fifty-five. The first act is just over. They can hold the curtain twenty-five minutes.”

Thea did not move. “Twenty-five and thirty-five makes sixty,” she muttered. “Tell them I’ll come if they hold the curtain until I am in the dressing-room. Say I’ll have to wear her costumes, and the dresser must have everything ready. Then call a taxi, please.”

Thea had not changed her position since he first interrupted her, but she had grown pale and was opening and shutting her hands rapidly. She looked, Fred thought, terrified. He half turned toward the telephone, but hung on one foot.

“Have you ever sung the part?” he asked.

“No, but I’ve rehearsed it. That’s all right. Get the cab.” Still she made no move. She merely turned perfectly blank eyes to Dr. Archie and said absently, “It’s curious, but just at this minute I can’t remember a bar of Walküre after the first act. And I let my maid go out.” She sprang up and beckoned Archie without so much, he felt sure, as knowing who he was. “Come with me.” She went quickly into her sleeping-chamber and threw open a door into a trunk-room. “See that white trunk? It’s not locked. It’s full of wigs, in boxes. Look until you find one marked ‘Ring 2.’ Bring it quick!” While she directed him, she threw open a square trunk and began tossing out shoes of every shape and color.

Ottenburg appeared at the door. “Can I help you?”

She threw him some white sandals with long laces and silk stockings pinned to them. “Put those in something and then go to the piano and give me a few measures in there–you know.” She was behaving somewhat like a cyclone now, and while she wrenched open drawers and closet doors, Ottenburg got to the piano as quickly as possible and began to herald the reappearance of the Volsung pair, trusting to memory.

In a few moments Thea came out enveloped in her long fur coat with a scarf over her head and knitted woolen gloves on her hands. Her glassy eye took in the fact that Fred was playing from memory, and even in her distracted state, a faint smile flickered over her colorless lips. She stretched out a woolly hand. “The score, please. Behind you, there.”

Dr. Archie followed with a canvas box and a satchel. As they went through the hall, the men caught up their hats and coats. They left the music-room, Fred noticed, just seven minutes after the telephone message….

******

So what makes this scene work?

First, we have a nicely intimate gathering of three long-term friends, relaxed after a meal. Then…the call. We have the conflict of time and preparation.

But. Thea does not immediately spring up and get started. Cather points out three times that Thea does not move right away. Yet she’s aware of what her time to get there and be dressed will take–for a part she has only rehearsed, not sung. She observes that she can’t remember the part she has to sing at that moment. But when she does move, she knows exactly what she needs. Dr. Archie is to get a specific wig. Fred is to call a taxi, pack some shoes, then play appropriate music from the opera. The entire process takes seven minutes…and without saying so, due to the careful staging and presentation of details, you as the reader know that Thea has thought over exactly what she would need to do should this opportunity fall into her lap. Even though she’s somewhat startled by it, she takes the time to think through what is needed and to be there for the chance of a lifetime. Quickly.

There’s also the little character-building elements, even though this is toward the end of the book. Thea is clearly someone who notices everything. She knows the timing of her travel and the length of the opera. She opens and closes her hands while thinking, a detail that points to her tension. When she does act, she moves quickly and decisively. But she is not so wrapped up in herself that she fails to notice that Fred is playing the piano from memory.

And within a few hundred words, we have slow-fast-slow pacing occurring. After this snippet, Fred and Dr. Archie put Thea in a cab, where she studies the score with the light on as the cabbie races her to the theater. Fred explains to Dr. Archie–and us–while they follow in another taxi just how and why this moment could be the making of Thea’s singing career.

For me, it’s the mix of pacing and the small elements that make this work so well. The slow-fast-slow pacing of that moment of realization that the make-or-break moment is HERE. And we see that Our Heroine has been preparing for just that sort of lucky lightning strike so that she can take advantage of it, in an economy of words.

It’s those three moments where Cather observes that Thea does not immediately get up that really make the scene.

She doesn’t move, but calculates the time needed for her to arrive and be ready.

She doesn’t move, but she opens and closes her hands rapidly while reassuring Fred (and probably herself) that she knows the part.

She doesn’t move, but she tells Dr. Archie that she’s temporarily forgotten what comes next. And that her maid (who would have known exactly what she needed) has been dismissed for the evening.

But she does know what to do, so that when she does move, she does so quickly, in under seven minutes.

When I first read this passage, the craft involved sucked me back into reading and rereading it.

That doesn’t happen very often.

 

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Getting Derailed

On January 4th I wrote a process post about the new Goddess’s Honor trilogy I plan to be working on during 2021. While high fantasy, it is going to be pretty darn political as it deals with a successor picking up the pieces of a failing empire in the face of a bigger threat.

Um.

I was working on worldbuilding the morning of January 6th, and not following the news or social media. I stopped a little bit before noon to start a Zoom meeting I was hosting for my local Soroptimist chapter. I was greeted with the blare of someone’s TV and the news that there was a violent assault happening on the US Capitol, apparently with the intent to stop the certification of the results of the 2020 election.

That put paid to doing any work on the trilogy for that day—and, to be honest, I still can’t get back to it. Writing the aftermath of necessary but horrendous regime change is still just a little bit raw.

But I wrote a long essay about Writing the Revolution, which is available over on my political Substack (https://joyce14d.substack.com/p/writing-the-revolution). I brought forward a project I’ve been musing about for some time now, which was to transcribe and post two term papers I wrote while working in politics and getting my Political Science degree. In addition, I have a pile of clippings and giveaway literature from the ‘80s and ‘90s that focus on the rise of the then-titled New Christian Right. The process of sorting and analyzing that literature, then writing about it, is going to be one of my side projects throughout 2021, along with republishing political work I wrote during the ‘90s.

For years I’ve been saying that we were going to have major political problems in the ‘20s. This material is the basis for those assertions.

But what about fiction?

Sooner or later I’ll get back to the new Goddess’s Honor trilogy, which still needs a title. I haven’t liked a lot of the suggestions but it may end up becoming Goddess’s Oath or Goddess’s Vow. Burden was suggested but it isn’t quite right. It should still be on track for release in late 2021 or early 2022, nonetheless. I just can’t focus on it until things settle down a bit on the political front.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing fiction. I have…but the only character who’s speaking to me right now is Gabriel Martiniere. The Martiniere Legacy trilogy is Ruby’s story, just as The Heritage of Michael Martiniere is Mike’s—but Gabe has things to say, especially about those years between getting together with Ruby up to the opening of Inheritance.

It’s not going to be a big book (ha! I said that about Heritage as well. We shall see). First Christmas Together will be part of it, and between other pieces and the one I wrote about the birth of Gabe’s son Brandon this week, I’ve got about half the material I need already.

It will include what happened during Gabe and Ruby’s divorce. Early days at Moondance and Gabe’s relationship with his second wife Rachel. The formative elements which forged him into the man who could effectively stand up to Philip Martiniere, remarry Ruby, become the Martiniere, and speak out as an advocate for the elimination of indentured servitude.

I’m looking at a possible April/May publication date for Broken Angel: The Lost Years of Gabriel Martiniere. So yes, there will be a fifth Martiniere Legacy book.

Justine is slinking around scheming about her book as well, but we shall see how quickly she decides to speak up after Gabe’s book comes out. She may decide to stay silent.

We shall see.

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Writing Process–Worldbuilding, Early Stages

So here I am again. Facing the need to start building the world, characters, and plot lines for a new series. Well, this one is kinda new. It’s a second trilogy in the Goddess’s Honor world. But still. Here I am at the beginning once more.

Last year, sitting down to build the world and write the entire trilogy all at once, then release all at once in the fall, actually worked well for me. One of my frustrations in working with a series is remembering all of those niggling little continuity pieces, especially as the world shifts while I get to know it through writing. The reality is that you can plan, plan, plan and plot, plot, plot all you want but once the characters start interacting with the plot, stuff happens to change their backstory and even some of the earlier events in the story. I found this to be quite frustrating in writing both The Netwalk Sequence and Goddess’s Honor. Not so much with The Martiniere Legacy because I could go back and retcon things. And even though The Heritage of Michael Martiniere was partially written after the main Legacy trilogy came out, I still did not have the frustrations that I did with Netwalk and Goddess’s Honor.

As a result, I’m going to do the same thing with this trilogy. My timing is pretty close to what I was doing with the Legacy, and I’m actually starting a wee bit ahead because I’m picking up threads from the end of Goddess’s Honor and Judgment of Honor.

At this point in time I don’t even have a series title or book titles. I know it’s going to be a trilogy. But considering that I really didn’t have titles for the Legacy books until pretty late, I’m not worried about it.

I’ve been poking around at the various characters and what they need to accomplish in the series-wide arc, not the individual books just yet. It’s rather like scattering a pack of Tarot cards and looking at each one.

The Major Players

Here is Heinmyets. He played a minor but significant role in the Goddess’s Honor books. He’s going to be a major player in these books, because instead of retiring after handing the leadership of the Two Nations (Keldara and Clenda) over to his grandson Linyet, he ends up with a major diplomatic role in the reconstruction of the land of Daran. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Heinmyets and the role he plays. His experience with the magic breed of horses, daranvelii, will also be significant.

Katerin ea Miteal is no longer simple Katerin Healer. Leader of Medvara, mother of the new Empress of Daran. But the lands of Varen look to her to fulfill a growing need, especially since the nations of Varen face a growing challenge to the east instead of the dangers of the Darani Empire renewing their colonial ambitions. And she has a new romantic interest in her life, after years of mourning Witmara’s father Metkyi.

Witmara ea Miteal, Empress of Daran, has a huge hot mess on her hands. Her predecessor Chatain en Ralsem focused on colonial expansion instead of maintaining the lands he already had. It’s up to Witmara to fix them and correct the injustices that have been mounting in Daran for generations. That includes a lot of special interests, including a long-term insurgency by the Matriarchs of Ternar that has only now come to light.

Betsona ea Ralsem, half-sister to Chatain and Witmara’s most prominent supporter in Daran. Her mother was Ternarese but she was never a candidate for Empress due to disability caused by a magical accident when she was young. She is also a target for the Matriarch’s insurgency and is a focal point for some of those special interests. The interactions between her and Heinmyets become crucial, especially as they take on a romantic element. Until Heinmyets, Betsona’s only romantic involvement has been with her servant Seijina. She’s key to Witmara’s success…or failure.

The Minor Players

Imnari, Headwoman of Wickmasa, is not who she appeared to be in the Goddess’s Honor books. The village of Wickmasa has been paradoxical for many generations, and Imnari is part of that.

Orlanden, lover of Haran, the late brother of the Mershaunten of Larij. He’s more than willing to leave Varen after Haran’s death, and serves as an aide to Heinmyets.

Tilvi and Tilyet–sister and brother, distant cousins of Katerin and Witmara. Senior staff in Medvara’s agriculture division, selected by the land to serve as guardians of the leadership when Katerin is not in Medvara.

Rekaré, new Goddess of Sorrow–still learning how to be a Goddess, and dealing with Stuff.

Seijina–no romantic interest between her and Orlanden, but doesn’t mean the two of ’em aren’t scheming.

So it’s still a case of spreading the cards, and concocting the big arcs. Then I sit down and start piecing together the small arcs for each book.

Projected writing start time is sometime mid-month.

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Welcome 2021…and 2020 writing metrics

2020 tried to go out like it came in, with me dealing with a gut bug. Fortunately, unlike the bug that made the 2019-2020 transition miserable, this one was easily tossed back, but I was still pretty tired out. Today, it’s all about allergies acting up. No idea what is going on unless the ol’ bod is taking me through a retrospective tour of the Bugs of 2020.

Meanwhile, I finished the last preliminary edits of The Heritage of Michael Martiniere. Now it’s waiting for the editor’s comments. When I finished this pass of Heritage on the 30th, that was pretty much it for the world of the Martinieres. I know it is now because it just feels different. Instead of Ruby, Gabe, and Mike haunting me, the characters from the next set of books (which will be set in the Goddess’s Honor world) started speaking up. Oh sure, I could write more about the Martinieres and I might just do that in the future. But for now, that world is done, save for the final touches on Heritage. It’s been productive.

I didn’t keep details of the exact number of words I wrote in 2020, but it’s easy enough to figure out by looking at the books.

Each volume of the Legacy came out at around 90,000 words each, so roughly 180,000 words on the base Martiniere Legacy story.

Heritage is right around 114,000 words.

First Meetings, That Martiniere Look, First Christmas Together, and A Belated Christmas Honeymoon add about 20,000 words to the total, maybe a little more. Add in another 6,000 word Martiniere story out on submission and that’s 26,000 words of Martiniere short stories.

Overall, that’s roughly 294,000 words of novel.

26,000 words of short stories.

Roughly 320,000 words in all. Perhaps another 10,000 in stories that got started but dropped, or were story sketches.

Eh, so I guess I’ll claim roughly 330,000 words written this year, not counting the blogging. I would say that speaks of a productive year. Then again, except for two trips to Portland and RadCon, I didn’t go anywhere.

I published Judgment of Honor, Inheritance, Ascendant, and Realization this year. No short story releases that I can remember.

This was the year I also decided to step off of the short story treadmill after realizing this summer that I could either be a short story writer vying to get my work published by others, or else I could focus on novels and promotion of novels. I simply lack the energy to do both at age sixty-three. The Martiniere books are some of the best I’ve written, and I think it is because I just threw the short story stuff out the door instead of trying to juggle books and short stories. That said, the Martiniere short stories also rank amongst some of the better shorts I’ve written, at least in my opinion (especially That Martiniere Look and First Christmas Together).

One of the reasons for stepping off of the short story treadmill is that it’s a numbers game. In order to be selling regularly, one has to have something like 15-20 stories written and circulating. My best sales happened when I had that much inventory. Just like having an extensive back catalog helps with selling books, having a lot of shorts available makes sales much more likely. I’d fallen off of writing short stories and had something like nine in circulation.

I looked at the numbers and decided that I’d much rather focus on novel series, and working on short stories tied to the books. For one thing, writing a short story outtake is really helpful when I’m trying to figure out some character dynamics. For another, short stories tied to a series sell books. They serve as an easy introduction to the characters and the series with less investment.

What am I going to do with the unpublished short stories I still have in inventory? Well, some may just molder in the trunk. Others may end up being self-published (for example, Moving On, a climate change dystopian story told in letters). Still others may be fleshed out in more detail or revised as needed. And if I see an appropriate anthology call, I’ll pull them out.

Making that decision was actually a bit of a relief, really.

So what lies ahead? Well, besides finishing off Heritage edits and production work, I’m going to revise the first two books of The Netwalk Sequence. Both Netwalk and Netwalker Uprising are not up to current formatting standards, and I find them difficult to read as a result. Plus there’s a bit of revision needed for series continuity and tech updates. Those two reflect the reality that one is ten years old and the other not much younger. Additionally, I have three separate cover artists in that series and it just doesn’t work. They’ll be the Author Preferred 2021 Series and I plan to rerelease them in September.

The new writing will be a trilogy set in the Goddess’s Honor world. I already knew this was going to be a thing because while I’d finished the series arc, there were still storytelling situations left in that world. The new series is going to pick up those threads. Witmara has to wrestle with all the problems that Chatain left her in Daran. Her mother Katerin ends up leading the coalition of nations that make up the Free Nations of Varen–and has to deal with the Divine Confederation and the Outcast God to the East. She appoints Heinmyets to be Varen’s ambassador to Daran. Betsona helps Witmara, then is attracted to Heinmyets–and discovers a new source of strength. Meanwhile, Rekaré is learning how to be a Goddess.

But there’s also some tiny bits of discovery, such as the Headwoman of Wickmasa, Imnari, being much, much more than she first appeared to be. Oh yessss, this world is starting to talk to me again. Worldbuilding starts in earnest soon.

Meanwhile, I’ve also decided that I need to develop more visibility this year. To that end I’m going to try to be more active on Substack, Instagram, Goodreads, and yes, Twitter. I took a couple of Jane Friedman classes on platform and social media, and they pretty much confirmed what I’ve been doing so far and where I need to go next. I have the two papers I wrote on the early development of the New Christian Right back in 1980-81 that I’m going to put up on Substack, and will probably summarize a bunch of my files of right-wing movements in the Portland area during the late 80s-90s over there as well. Substack is probably where most of my political writing will end up, as well as my professional writing work.

I have a crapton of photos that will probably start going up on Instagram. Mostly landscapes and wildlife, but they’re connected to my various writing worlds.

I need to figure out how to link this blog to Goodreads so that it automatically crossposts, just like it does to my Amazon Central page.

I actually worked out a schedule and everything yesterday–a general schedule. This next week is going to be all about plotting out the specifics now that I have the general framework set up.

Not that many years left. I need to kick out the jams and make whatever splash I can–and 2021 needs to be that damn turnaround year.

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