Beyond the Midnight Mountain draft 6
Simi draft 2
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.
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.
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.
Most fantasy has magic. Magic users, laws about magic use, magic schools, wands, curses, secret magic that only its users know exists. Maybe some sort of magical object, an unexplainable event, a slightly superhuman ability. At least some magical beings like elves or fairies. Or if not magical, at least fantastical, like dragons.
On Goodreads I have 140 books on my Fantasy shelf. Only 7 of them are also on my Nonmagical Fantasy shelf.
So. Can you have really fantasy without magic? Without even the fantastical beings?
Yes. But I might be biased. My book Beyond the Mountain is fantasy, but it has no magic, fantasy creatures, or supernatural occurrences. A made-up world without magic is still a made-up world.
Hey, Batman doesn't have superpowers, just a bunch of Bat devices, but he's still a superhero.
I recently read a few forums where people discussed whether fantasy without magic is possible (and if so, whether it's difficult to write). Most said yes, it's possible, if uncommon. But many thought it would be difficult to write. A few even said no, it's not possible--If there's no magic or fantastical beings, how is it fantasy? It's just alternate history. (Okay, an alternate history of what? Alternate history, to me, requires a real place with a real history to deviate from.)
I guess it comes down to your definition of fantasy. To me, a made-up world is enough.
I enjoy fantasy, magic or not. Admittedly, it's probably more boring if there's no magic at all. One of the things I love best about speculative fiction is the world building--the cultures, the geography, the architecture--and that can include the magic system.
But if there is magic, it has to have limitations, and those limitations have to be believable. I've read books where things happen...because magic. Maybe the viewpoint character isn't a magician, and so can't explain the mysterious ways of magic to the reader. Maybe it's a world where pretty much any ability imaginable is possible. In either case, the magic can easily become a convenient plot device, where the cans and can'ts of the universe or character abilities make little sense.
I don't hate magic. It can be very well written.
Anyhow, it's still super common in fantasy.
So is this why I wrote a fantasy story without magic?
I don't know. I don't think I made a conscious decision to rebel against the convention, though that sounds like something I'd do. I purposefully changed my setting away from Medieval-Europe-ish to something less common. For my next book, I'm considering fantasy that doesn't involve the typical wars, royal characters, or killing. And maybe someday I'll write one without romance, and one where the main character doesn't have dead/dysfunctional/absent parents.
But really, I had a story in my head, and magic simply never came up.
In all honesty, I think it would be harder to write a magical world that a non-magical one. The more magic figures into the plot, the harder you have to work to create a convincing system for it. And the harder you have to work not to let it overpower character development.
With as much as I've read magical books, the only ones that have sparked ideas for me are the very limited/subtle ones. (Think simple potions, quarry speech, or a single magical object.) That, I can work with. A whole system? I wouldn't even know where to start.
I lived in Kenya with my parents and younger brothers in the mid-2000s. It was the first time I'd been out of the country since I was 3, and besides one vague memory of a trip to Washington, DC I couldn't remember ever being outside the Carolinas or Georgia.
Kenya is on the equator, so the temperature and day/night length are pretty constant all year. Nairobi is elevated, so it's cool. I remember some sweatshirt days, but I can't remember if it ever got hot except during the week we spent at the coast.
In the city, most people walk or use public transportation--buses and 14-passenger vans called matatus. Matatus usually have a yellow band painted around them, along with their 80KPH speed limit. Cars drive on the left side of the road, but weave into your lane as they avoid all the potholes. Kids walk to school in collared white shirts, blue sweaters, navy skirts or shorts, and grey knees socks with stripes around the top (uniform colors vary, but these are the ones I remember).
I went to an American school that had buses, flat-front ones painted green and white, with a manually operated folding door, seat belts, and about 25 seats. Houses and compounds have gates and walls topped with barbed wire or broken glass. Bricks are larger and greyer than in the US. Roofs are reddish clay tiles. The natural world is green, like North Carolina, but a greener sort of green. There are palm trees and banana plants, and a single banana leaf is as big as a person.
Many windows are louvered glass slats 6" wide that overlap but don't seal closed, with security bars. My house didn't have (or need) heat or air conditioning, and above each window was a vent in the wall (with a screen to keep out mosquitoes). The living room had parquet flooring, and the kitchen had linoleum tiles like you'd see in a classroom or a 50s diner, only they were red. No one in my family liked those red tiles. For some reason, the bathroom light switches were on the outside of the bathrooms.
Sodas are available anywhere. Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange. Some places also have Fanta Blackcurrant, but any restaurant or grocery store will have the first four options.
I don't know that there was ever a household we visited that didn't have sodas to offer us. They're cheap, and if you buy it in a glass bottle, some kiosks let you return the bottle for a small discount on your new purchase. Plastic bottles are 500mL, but glass bottles are available in 300mL or 500mL.
It seemed everyone had a mobile phone, and it was pretty cheap to buy minutes. There was a Celtel billboard near our house that showed two Masai men on bikes. At least one of them wore the traditional Masai red shuka, and both men were using their cell phones.
Part of what I love about fantasy is that anything can happen. A high school kid probably isn't going be ambushed by bad guys or lead a heist or attend an academy to learn a system of magic. But he might if he lives in some fantasy or futuristic world.
But another huge appeal to me is place. After living in Kenya I'm very interested in cultural anthropology, and after researching settings for my book I have a growing love for all kinds of climates, architecture, terrains, and everyday living. Even when they're only made up.
What I love about faraway places (or long ago places, or invented ones) are the everyday details.