Beyond the Midnight Mountain draft 6
Simi draft 2
I recently read Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee. I'd previously read her debut novel, Under a Painted Sky, which I enjoyed, so I thought I'd give this one a go too.
Outrun the Moon is about Mercy Wong, a Chinese girl in 1906 San Francisco who wants an education. After eighth grade, education for Chinese girls is no longer offered, so she bribes her way into a high school for white girls. The deal is she gets to be a student tuition-free if she can get the headmaster approval to expand his chocolate shop to Chinatown. To cover the bribe, she poses as a nobleman's daughter from China. Unsurprisingly she meets opposition from almost everyone at the school, but she's determined to prove herself. "I will sell that chocolate, and show her that I have the staying power of a wine stain."
A few weeks into the term, the 1906 earthquake hits San Francisco. The school, and most of the city, is ruined, and a lot of people camp out in Golden Gate Park. Mercy and her fellow students learn to rely on each other and work together to not only survive, but do what they can to serve the other survivors around them.
I gave this book 4 of 5 stars on Goodreads.
The first few chapters are intriguing. You see Mercy in crammed Chinatown with her little brother, who has weak lungs after being forcefully vaccinated by the white government. You see her in the white areas being robbed and distrusted because she doesn't look like them. "You'll understand if I don't trust you." But you also see her internalizing the wisdom of a book for business women, and bribing her way into school, so she can give her brother a better life than the harsh conditions her father works in. And you see her never step down. "You'll understand if I don't trust you."
Once she gets to the school, the story is a little disjointed. She attends classes, some girls are nice to her, she has one main rival, she had one business meeting in her attempt to get the chocolate shop approved in Chinatown. The dust jacket made it sound like the earthquake's aftermath was the main plot, but it doesn't happen until the middle of the book. Knowing ahead of time about the earthquake, everything before it seemed like it was going nowhere. I doubted anyone would care about a chocolate shop after the earthquake, and the arguments with Mercy's main rival Elodie (the chocolatier/headmaster's daughter) seemed like little episodes rather than a line of plot dominoes. The first half of the book felt like setup, something that had to be there to put rivalries in place so the girls could overcome them later.
What did I like, then? Well, everything else. Mercy is a strong heroine, not aggressive or overbearing, but determined. She doesn't cower before higher society, and does what she can to better her life and her brother's.
Mercy has a great narrator voice, too. I've read a few books narrated in first person, present tense, and it seems that style has a higher risk of either a) the narration relying too heavily on the "I" inner world, and thus the action feeling airy like a dream, or b) the main character having no personality. This author falls into neither trap. The writing is evocative, and just plain interesting to read. "If someone had told me I would one day be defending Elodie's mole, I would've told them to go push a cow up a tree."
What I noticed about Mercy in this book (and Sammy in Under a Painted Sky) is that, concerning Chinese vs western, Stacey Lee knows her stuff. Mercy's home life, her whole being, is a good mix of eastern and Catholic. Mercy doesn't put much stock in her mother's fortunetelling, yet she describes people in terms of physiognomy. She doesn't put a lot of emphasis on her father's Catholic faith, but she's familiar with the confession box and prays to the Christian God a few times. She thinks of herself as Chinese, and she thinks of herself as an American. The author never throws in something Chinesey to be like, "Look! Now you can tell the character is Chinese." She never throws in something churchy to be like, "Now you can tell they're also western." Everything that's there is a part of who Mercy is.
Which brings me to this: How different are we, really? If I can read a book and identify with a made-up person who fears the number four, why can't people identify with other people in real life?
What great books have you read recently?
During the early drafts of Beyond the Mountain, I was pretty obsessed. Every bit of interesting conversation I overheard, every new style of architecture I learned about, every possible plot complication I thought of, I wanted to cram into Beyond the Mountain. I didn't want to waste an opportunity to add something original or fascinating to my story. I was in love with my story. With the world, with the main character Ket, with all the other characters. I wanted her love interest to be my boyfriend. World building was my biggest trap. I wanted to make my world rich and alive, and to do that it needed to be big and varied, right? That's a big reason the first draft was 40,000 words too long.
A second reason was I didn't have the story pinned down. It was in my head for a couple years, but I didn't think I'd ever write it down, so it changed all the time. It was originally based on some fantasy version of Medieval England. Every few months the main plot events morphed. Ket was originally a princess, and went through about 5 names that never quite satisfied me.
Another big reason was that I hadn't yet studied the writing craft in depth. I thought you couldn't just jump from one event to the next without some kind of transition in between, and I also thought you had to put an awful lot of action beats into dialogue, because that's what books do. How else will the reader picture the characters interacting? It turned out I was remembering books wrong. A lot of the action beats I thought I remembered were actually what I imagined the characters doing as I read. Yes, I did read books while writing mine. But it's hard to read a new book and study it at the same time. It wasn't until I went back and read old favorites, that I realized how wrongly I'd been remembering them.
So I began to read lots of books about writing--books on storycraft, books on wordcraft, books on inspiration and living a writerly life. They've been immensely helpful. Reading novels and paying attention to the story elements and mechanics helps a lot. Reading my own bad writing helped way more than I expected. During the first draft of BTM, I toiled over every sentence. Even if nobody ever saw that draft, I hated to think that bad writing might exist in the world with my name on it. I couldn't figure out how to make myself write fast, but I figured if I wrote slowly and did it well, I'd have less to revise later.
Fast forward a couple years. Still revising. That first draft took me about 8 months. The next 4 drafts took about 2 years. I hope to publish it this year, but it still needs at least one more good revision.
So then, Simi. Unlike BTM, I outlined Simi. I wrote down the seed of the idea, but not much came of it for 4 months. Then I found a fabulous book on outlining (Planning Your Novel by Janice Hardy). I outlined for 6 weeks, and wrote the first draft in 30 days. Right now I'm 3/4 through the second draft.
I'm able to write faster now. I can draft without caring that there's bad writing with my name on it. To be fair, it's not nearly as bad as BTM's first draft. But it could be, and I wouldn't worry that someone might see it. And if they did, and I wouldn't care that much. Now that I know I can do better, I can acknowledge my first draft is sloppy, relax, and move forward. If I have a great idea, I don’t try to squeeze it into my WIP, I just write it down for some book
I can see so many ways I’ve grown as a writer in the past 3.5 years. Here are the stages I’ve gone through:
I’m awesome. My story is awesome. It’s so unique and my sentences are perfect. Reread my chapters just because they’re so perfect. I’m in love with my characters. And withheld information, I’m so clever!
As you can see, some things swing back and forth. Others have simply changed. I alternate between thinking I'm awesome and thinking my words and stories are garbage. Sometimes I feel both ways in the same week or the same day. But I'm getting better at the writing process. I have a better grip on story structure, pacing, and making personalities clash. Varying sentence structure and skipping unnecessary actions come more naturally now. I know how to fast draft so I don't get carried away with wordiness, or get bogged down researching details rather than getting the story on paper.
It reminds me of parents. I’m not one, but I’ve seen several first-time parents who wash the passy every time it falls on the floor, read parenting books, and run after their kid every time he toddles somewhere. By the second kid, they’ve outgrown washing passies, and every so often they’ll look up and ask if anyone happens to know where their kid went off to. They still swing between thinking they’re good parents and thinking they’re terrible parents, but this parenting thing is starting to fall into a routine.
There are still things I want to learn to do better. I would love to write a book with more characters, and I would love to write a series. Both require increasing the scale of the story in one or more ways (cast, geography, timeline, stakes, complications, etc.)--and that's what I have trouble with, coming up with enough story to fill the pages of even one book and keep a reader hooked.
I can't yet compare the revision processes of the two books, but I can already see that my second book has been faster and smoother than my first. I still love the world and characters of BTM more, because I've spent so long with them. I wrote BTM because I had a story to write. I wrote Simi because I had to write a story. But as I revise and research the world, Simi is coming more alive for me. And this second time around, I feel a little bit like I know what I'm doing.
Have you ever started a new project or hobby, and wanted to do everything at once? Running, sewing, horseback riding? Let me know in the comments below.
This week’s weird research is how to make a lamp from hamburger grease, a stick, and a scrap of cotton.
I googled how to make a torch in the wilderness. My character Simi needs one to last her all night traveling through the forest. She could make a new one every time the old one died, but the wilderness torch instructions I found either lasted only 5-20 minutes, dripped a trail of flaming oil, or both. Too impractical.
But I did find how to make a lamp/candle from fat. It works for the story, because Simi has access to a small clay pot and the grease from dinner. So I simulated it as closely as I could with a glass bowl.
1. Fill the bottom half of the bowl with sand. This keeps the wick standing upright. I used wet-ish dirt and tiny gravel from my driveway.
2. Add last night’s congealed hamburger grease.
3. Find a twig 1/2” taller than the sand + grease. Smear a scrap of cotton fabric with grease and wrap it around the stick. This is your wick. Stick the wick down into the grease and sand.
4. Light the wick. I couldn’t get it to catch when I used a charcoal lighter, but it worked when I used matches. It took three matches.
My lamp lasted 3-4 hours before it ran out of grease. Trimming all the fat before cooking an animal (rather than just catching what drips) might produce more fuel for the lamp. I tested it in a dark room, and it didn’t shed much light, but for Simi it’s better than nothing. She’d know how to make a decent lamp, anyway, but at least now I kind of know what I’m narrating.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever researched, or done just to see if it could be done? Comment below!
I've added a page on this site for my WIP.
Here's my current blurb:
All Simi wants is to convince her irresponsible, widowed brother-in-law to marry her so she can keep a closer eye on her young nephew. What could be more reasonable? His disinterest, and the disapproval of her river-dwelling village, are little deterrent for her. Her remaining sister Zera disapproves too, but Simi knows what needs to be done.
But when she, Zera, and their nephew end up lost on the river, Simi quickly has more than her family's well-being to worry about. A chance meeting with an old love--and an argument with him that breaks a glass mage's vase--gets the pair a spell that seems, to Simi, an awful lot like a curse.
The book's working title is Simi. It's a placeholder, and won't be the final title. Some titles I'm considering:
Smoke on the Glass
Flame on the River
In Which I Steal a House
I Steal My Family
A Thread in the Ashes
Woven in the Ashes
Woven From Ash
Mirror of Ash
Mirror of Pain
Glass and Smoke
A Broken Loom
Two Houses Gone
Threads of Water and Fire
Threads of Night and Fire
Count the Passing Gardens
Count the River Gardens
Pain and Other Magic
There are a few top contenders in the list, but it's hard to find the balance of cool sounding name vs. imagery vs. importance in the story vs. the right mood/feel. Beyond the Mountain's title has a double meaning--in that book, the mountain is the symbol of the royal house. The deposed empress travels beyond the mountain, while struggling to figure out who she is beyond her lost royal-ness. In a scene where she passes the mountain, she learns something that makes her question whether she can escape her old self at all.
I want a similar title for this book, one that's both a literal and figurative image from the story, and that sounds intriguing without being misleading. For instance, the ones with “pain” in them make the book sound darker than it is. While it’s not a lighthearted romp, it’s also not that dark. No one dies, and there aren’t even cruel characters.
What do you think of these title possibilities? Do they sound intriguing? Dark? Fun? Ridiculous? Comment below!
Last night I went to a New Year’s Eve party for the first time in 8 years. We played several games, including Quelf. I hadn’t played it in several years, but it’s a great game. From 10 through midnight, we streamed the ball dropping, except the part where the ball actually drops, which came 1m 40s after the WiFi gave up.
Then I went to bed, and I’ve started off 2018 by sleeping in till 8:45. Only my dog’s outdoor needs keep me from sleeping longer. Tomorrow it’s back to a 6:30 alarm.
So now it’s 2018. I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution before. A lot of people resolve to eat less, diet more, work out so many times a week, or read so many books, but stereotypically they fail by February. But I’ve decided a theme for 2018, and a goal for 2018, and a month-long resolution.
My theme: I apologize a lot. I try not to be an inconvenience to anyone. I drive faster when someone tailgates me. I try to be in the way as little as possible. Recently at the fabric store, there was 1 cashier and the line was getting 4 or 5 customers long. The woman checking out was at the counter a few minutes while the cashier rang up her fabric and activated several gift cards. It was slow. The customer turned to everyone else in the line and said, “Sorry!” She had no need to apologize. It’s a courtesy. But it’s like an admission that by shopping in a public shopping place and checking out in the checkout line, she’s an inconvenience.
So 2018 will be my year of not apologizing. I’ll still apologize for mistakes, I’ll say “excuse me” if I have to walk through someone’s conversation. But I won’t apologize for a slow checkout, I won’t apologize for driving a speed I’m comfortable with, I won’t apologize for your impatience, I won’t actively try to take up as little space in the world as possible.
Okay, so maybe I will sometimes. And when I don’t I’ll feel rude. But I’ll make an effort. Because I’m allowed to be right. I’m allowed to drive a safe speed. I’m allowed to exist with physical mass and use time to do tasks.
My 2018 goal: Publish both my works in progress. Beyond the Mountain needs another round or 2 of revisions and beta reading, then editing and all the publication steps. My other book (called Simi for now) isn’t as far along, but I’m thinking it needs less work.
My January resolution: Write every day for at least 2 pomodoro timers.
Beyond the Mountain has now been read and returned with feedback by 3 beta readers. One of them is related to me, and pretty easy to please as far as books go, so her comments were more encouraging. The other two betas’ comments were less encouraging.
Not that the readers were discouraging. But as I realized the problems my book has, I of course am very discouraged. There are large sections where little interesting happens. I can condense these parts, but it will throw the pacing off, not to mention making the novel much shorter. To counteract the condensing, I’ll need to add/expand other sections. That’s the part that has me staring at the screen doing nothing.
This week I’ve been trying to back up the beginning—which means writing a new scene. I know what I want to happen in this scene, yet words don’t come. In 6 days I managed 1,000 words. Yesterday I managed another 800 words, by purposefully making them garbage. For example:
“Just write something,” Yania said to the author, her voice echoing in the silence.
“I must congratulate that Talin warrior for winning a difficult fight,” said Tohoem, who apparently was also there.
It’s better than no words at all. I’ll have something to revise later rather than a blank screen. But I can’t make my brain switch back to first draft mode. I don’t know if it’s because working 3 years on this book makes me want it to be finished already, or if 5 drafts has made the current story too set in my head. I just know that once I have a whole manuscript, when I have to go add something, words don’t come.
And I’m going to have to add scenes, conflict, and who knows what else, throughout the whole thing. I’ve cried many times over this in the past 2 days. People advise to set the story aside for a while, but I haven’t worked on in 6 months. I’ve sent chapters to betas and looked at their feedback, and I’ve mentally brainstormed things to change/add, but I haven’t written anything or done any work on it until this week. I’d say 6 months counts as “a while.”
I’ve tried before to do an editorial map, listing each scene’s goal, motivation, conflict, and disaster. But for most of the scenes these items are blank, or repeats of the previous scene’s goal and conflict.
For a few months now, I’ve considered starting over with a new outline and rewriting the whole thing. Obviously this scares me even more than a mere revision. But it seems better to start over and do it right than to keep tweaking something that’s so lacking.
I haven’t found much online about rewriting from scratch. Most of the search results use “rewrite” to mean “revise”. So I don’t know what I’ll do. I know the last 3 years haven’t been a waste, because I’ve learned a lot about myself and about writing that’s helped me write my second book. But still, I can’t help feeling like starting over means all the work I’ve done on Beyond the Mountain was for nothing.
In my last post (3 days ago) I said BTM was getting closer to publishable-ness. Well fast forward to now, and it seems it will never be ready. The further I get, the more I realize its flaws. The more I write the more I wonder if I’m cut out to be an author. Writing is hard. A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, according to Thomas Mann. But why is it so hard for me to flesh something out? To create new scenes? Why does adding words to a manuscript freeze my brain? Why can I know what happens and still stare at a blank screen?
National Novel Writing Month is in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I've never participated, but I did my own Novel Writing Month in September. I drafted my book from start to finish in 53,456 words in 30 days. I later went back through and added a few details and fleshed out skimpy scenes, and counted that as still the first draft, so in the end the draft was about 60,000. Decent for a first draft. My target for the book is about 80,000. (It has no title yet. The placeholder title is Simi.)
It helped that I outlined the book in August. I wouldn't succeed as a pantser. I wouldn't come up with anything decent. When I wrote Beyond the Mountain I knew the whole story beforehand, but didn't know what I was doing, and pantsed my way through it. The pantsed parts weren't so great. For Simi, I outlined as much as I could beforehand. I highly recommend Janice Hardy's Outlining Your Novel. She has you brainstorm a lot of aspects of your story, and the exercises have you write a lot down so you can see where you have gaps. (I also tried Libbie Hawker's Take Off Your Pants. It seemed okay for writers who already have a pretty good idea of their plot, but it doesn't take you through any brainstorming. I'll give it one more try on my next book.)
It also helped that I was on a time constraint. For Beyond the Mountain, I researched as I wrote, and it took me about 8 months to write the first draft. For Simi I wrote first, and now I need to do a bit of research to fact check and add setting details. I hope doing it this way won't take as long. Rather than researching everything and seeing what I can fit into the book, I'll be researching only the things I need to know.
Now comes revisions. There are a lot of books and websites dedicated to plot, structure, character arcs, writing fast, letting your first draft be sloppy, theme, and writing style. But I haven't seen many on revision. Revision for me usually means staring at the screen and knowing what my problem is, but not knowing how to fix it. And without a time constraint (why is there no NaNoRevMo?) it's easy to procastinate. Fortunately Simi had a pretty clean first draft, so that's a step forward already.
I'm getting closer to publishable-ness with Beyond the Mountain as well. I've had one round of beta readers, and I know where it needs work. Now to figure out what to do about that.
"Write what you know."
That's the advice a lot of beginning writers hear. But if we just wrote what we knew, our characters would too often have our hobbies, live in our hometowns, and never do things we haven't experienced. Writing what you know limits fantasy, horror, science fiction, even historical fiction if we're not historians. It restricts most of us us from writing about doctors, lawyers, mental illnesses, horses, Peru, farmers, being rich, living in poverty... you get the idea.
(But at least it lets you write a choking-on-swamp-water scene based on the time you almost drowned on Dr Pepper at Qdoba because someone told a fart story.)
So my modification of this advice is:
"Write what you know. If you don't know it, learn it."
And to learn, we research. Sometimes we have to research very specific topics or questions that don't always get us answers. Sometimes we spend an hour looking up names for grey, because we've already used ash and hematite, and the characters have never seen steel or concrete to compare a color to. And sometimes, we make weird searches and hope no one sees in our browser history that we Googled "man shave face how often."
So in the name of getting details right in my fiction, here are some searches I've made while writing Beyond the Mountain, of varying levels of weirdness. Not all of them even made it into the later drafts of the book.
This month I've been participating in #ShareWords, a Twitter game (is that what they're called?) for writers. Each day has a prompt for something to quote from your writing, whether it's a finished work or a work in progress.
Some writers tweet an image of their quotes, with nice backgrounds, but I'm not getting into that at this point. Meredith+technology+visual appeal=spending way too much time. So I tweet whatever I can fit into 140 characters. Usually that means choosing passages just by their length, and sometimes it also means condensing them by rewording or removing phrases.
Today I'd like to share some of my favorite passages from Beyond the Mountain. I won't include all my MOST favorites, whether because of length or spoilers, but here are 10 quotes I can share.
Yania didn’t know she would be chased off her own palace roof that morning.
“Oh, it’s more embarrassment than pain, though I think he’s actually proud of being the first one shot down. Said something about the greatest champions always being the first target.”
Morning elbowed its way through the window onto Ket’s face. It was week’s end, their last day in the village. She pulled her sova over her eyes and ignored the smell of breakfast and smoke outside.
Far beyond the point where all colors hazed blue, the purple horizon rose into a shape Ket would know anywhere, its peak allegedly so cold and strange, water froze hard and colored the whole surface white.
She looked at her fist. Fist? Did she think she could bodily fight her way past two men and out of trouble? She relaxed her hands and shrugged in way that, she hoped, said, Just a commoner here, the non-fugitive kind.
Shek rotated his left arm toward her, and nodded toward the old scars on it. “Ma stuffed a shirt into my mouth to give me something to bite down on, but Da still had to sit on my waist and pin my neck down just to keep me on the ground.”
Of the neighborhoods along the north-south boundary, Ket didn’t know quite where one became the next, but with each sight the ship passed, she knew what would come next. The bend of fishing wharfs piled high with the catches the fishermen brought for their partners to sell, the storehouses with raised floors over beer cellars. The ship slipped through the water, counting the passing buildings, while the buildings lazed and counted the passing ships
“And if I were able to reclaim what was mine? I can’t undo what he’s already done.”
Shek ran to the house from wherever he’d been outside, and stopped in the doorway. When he saw Ket he gripped the frame like he’d had the wind knocked from him. They stood facing each other. After a moment he said, “What in the valley were you thinking?”
Ket thought a string of words she’d never say aloud, in case her mama could still hear the living.
My book Beyond the Mountain is in the beta reader stage now, and I'm exploring ideas for my next project. I'm simultaneously suffering from not enough ideas, and too many of them.
I have a basic setting in mind, with some characters, and two or three premise possibilities. I don't think I can combine them and still have a cohesive story, so I have to decide on just one premise. Yet, whichever I pick, I don't really have ideas where the plot can go from there. I'm afraid of picking the wrong one, and spending all that time planning/writing something that doesn't work out.
I know from experience that I work best without a plan--as in, I actually get words written if I just jump right in. When it's only an idea on a brainstorming list, I'm afraid to get too invested. But when I'm actually writing in the story, it's easier to just pick something and go with it. However, that doesn't mean the words are any good.
I'm afraid of "pantsing"--jumping in without a plan--because Beyond the Mountain was a mess to edit. But so far outlining--looking at a whole story at once--is overwhelming.
I want to get something written, but I don't want it to be rushed and crappy. I want to take my time, but I don't want to base a writing career on publishing one book every few years.
Another dilemma is the length. I want to write a novella, both to sell, and to offer free to readers who subscribe to my mailing list (once I get that going). But I also want to get started on another novel. I'm afraid of starting on a novel, knowing how long the first one has taken--I want to get something finished and added to my backlist. But I'm afraid to write only a novella--what if it has novel potential, and I use up a great idea on something shorter?
I've decided more than once that I'm just going to sit down and write a few short stories. Maybe some will spark into something longer, and those that won't will at least be something I can give readers. I open my notebook or my laptop, and then close it again.
Maybe my well is dry. I've been done with BTM's major edits for a couple months now, but still, the process of doing it all again is just so daunting. I was lucky writing BTM, in that I already had the entire story in my head a long time before I decided to write it down. I want to do that again, know the whole story ahead of time--plus, now I have a better grasp on structure, pacing, and cohesiveness.
Ideally, I'd have several ideas brewing so that when I finish one book's draft/edit I can move on to another without a long unproductivity gap in between.
I feel frozen. I'm trying to get a newsletter started, but I don't have a lot of content or updates to offer subscribers. A lot of people say to start a mailing list before you're published, as early as possible, but until I'm published, why would anyone want to subscribe? They say to offer a freebie for subscribing, but I don't have one yet. I thought about offering visual content, like illustrations of my characters or landscapes, but I got out my drawing pencils and remembered I haven't done pencil drawing in 7 years.
I won't hire a cover artist until I'm just about ready to publish, so after it's formatted and the trim size and spine width are figured out. That will happen after an editor has been through it. That will happen after I find enough beta readers that I feel confident moving on. It's not a process you can rush. (Oh, and the editing-formatting-cover happen after I have the money to pay professionals. Eep!)
Right now, I just want to get one step closer to something.