Beyond the Midnight Mountain re-outlining
Simi draft 3
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 forcibly 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 has 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 future 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:
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, since she lives in an unlightbulbed world, 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.