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Blair tagged me a while ago, and then my life got ridiculous for a bit, so here goes!

long post is long )

I am tagging Brackett and Steph to carry on! I've been having fun reading people's answers to these questions and look forward to theirs.
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A week or two ago, people on Twitter were talking about the experience of revision, and the intuitive sense of Story and Shape that one gets after a while—and possible ways to shortcut that process. This led me into thinking about what underlies my personal sense of Story and Shape, and henceforth into Expectation.

(Note that all of this is my own opinion. Some of this comes from my experience reading slush for Ideomancer, but only as accumulated over nearly five years; not any one story, or even any group of stories, in particular. And some of this comes from my recent reading of the archives of various online magazines, some of it from reading stories for critique, and some of it from writing stories myself and then looking at them and saying, "Hm.")

Expectations are important. They're what turn a story from "oh, well, okay" to "oh, cool!" They're especially important because once you set them up, you get to break them, and the more times you do that, the more interested I'm going to be in what you're doing.

Expectations are the reason that people will often say "Twist endings are a hard sell for us". The "and then it was all a dream!" is maybe the most egregious of the twist endings—it completely invalidates everything that's gone before—but when I talk about twist endings I usually mean something different. A twist ending, for me, is when the ending is the first time that the reader's expectations are subverted.

If you make a little line map of a story, the twist-ending goes a bit like this:

...where the red lines indicate the direction the story goes. The straight lines at the beginning and middle are probably some set-up of open-ended questions, gradual gaining of context and answers for the questions, character development, worldbuilding, etc.

The sharp turn at the end is the twist: a drastic reversal of fortune, a revelation about the world, a revelation about the characters, a revelation about the narrator...any big subversion of an expectation we as readers have been carrying along. It's often, but not always, a subversion of an expectation set up in the very beginning.

As a reader, I don't find this kind of story very interesting because it doesn't surprise me. There's a limited range of ways one can subvert an expectation, in my experience, so if the story only subverts one expectation, there's a limited Realm of Possible Story that it lives in. After you've read a lot of stories, you know the boundaries of this Realm pretty well.

On the other hand, if the twist comes out of nowhere, I don't find it surprising because there's no context or contradiction—and since it's the story's ending, there's no time to unpack the consequences of, "Okay, but what if a spaceship did attack neanderthal Earth out of nowhere?" (Or whatever—I am pretty sure I just made that story up. Except it probably exists somewhere.)

There's a variation, which is the two-twist ending:




But here again there's only two subverted expectations, and frequently the second subversion is the antithesis of the first, so that you end up where you were heading in the first place anyway. This also has a hard time surprising me, sort of like when you're watching a 45-minute cop show episode and they catch someone at the half-hour mark. Oh no! The real killer's still out there! we cry, with no actual shock in our voices.

There's also, in the graph above, only three possible story-paths. The more stories you've read, the more you expect all three of these results (and not being surprised).

The lesson here is: the earlier you start setting up expectations and subverting them in interesting ways, the bigger the Realm of Possible Stories gets. The number of possible story-paths grows and grows. And the bigger the Realm is, the more I enjoy seeing where inside it this particular story goes.

A few notes here: you do need to also satisfy some expectations, otherwise the story can go quickly off the rails entirely and nobody has any idea what it's doing. Expectations can be micro- or macro-scale; most successful stories have, and subvert/satisfy, both. Also, open-ended questions are not the same as expectations. Open-ended questions are also important, to intrigue readers and keep them reading for more information. But that is not what this post is about.

I'm going to use my own stories as examples, not because I think I'm so great but because I want to talk about how I think of/use expectation in terms of my own writing—and also because I want to talk about flaws as well as things done well, and I feel weird using others' stories in that regard.

So! My one so-far-published story, "As Large as Alone", does not subvert a ton of expectations. However, the one BIG subversion happens pretty early on: this girl tells Mandy she's a mermaid, Mandy's sister figures out that the girl is not a mermaid but rather a dead person. The rest of the story is mostly Complicated Emotional Things about Growing Up—but there's also expectations woven into those Emotional Things, like Mandy's expectations of what being a mermaid means, and what Julia thinks the girl knows (i.e. that she's not in fact a mermaid). These characters' expectations collide in (hopefully) interesting ways, despite the fact that the reader knows what's going on fairly early in the story. This is an example of a pretty small Realm of Possible Story that ideally is a different-enough Realm from other Realms that it is still interesting.

I wrote "As Large as Alone" several years ago. Hopefully, I've gotten better at writing since then! Certainly I think I've gotten better at expectations. The more I write, the more this becomes intuitive rather than a thing to work at carefully.

Here's an example from a story I just recently drafted, in one morning, in a white-heat blaze of inspiration. The first sentence is: "They told us they were here to build a road." Expectations implied: they were not there to build a road; probably they didn't build a road. Open-ended questions: who are "they"; why were they really here?

The next sentence begins, "And build a road they did." The next few paragraphs are about the road, and add context about the setting and characters; hopefully that and the lingering open-ended questions are enough to get readers to the fourth paragraph, where at least one of them is answered (sort of) (in a way that gets subverted later—an example of the answer to an open-ended question becoming an expectation that can then be subverted/reversed/further played with).

In revisions, I can work on these further. Can I make the expectations clearer? The questions more urgent? The answers more convincing, so that the later reversal is more powerful and interesting? How close together can I get the original expectation-and-reversal pair? (Not much closer than first sentence and second sentence, probably.) If I have a revelation down there, what expectation does that depend on up here? How can I emphasize that?

Some of this is expanding the Realm of Possible Story. Some of it is building up trust. The more satisfying the initial subversion or confirmation of expectations and assumptions is, the more I trust the writer and the more (I hope) readers will trust me as a writer—to take them on an interesting journey through a large and multifaceted Realm of Possible Story.

Now, none of this is new. Expectations are a thing that writers often talk about when they talk about craft. But I'm not sure I've heard people talking about it in this way, so hopefully some of this is new (and useful) to some people. If nothing else, I know I've learned from hearing the same thing twice in different contexts.

If anyone else has thoughts or questions or further examples, I'd be interested in hearing them!
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...and (short story) draft! At 3700 words, the story that really needs a better title than just "Changeling" is complete!

First thought: Well, that only took me four years. This is the story I drafted at Odyssey in summer 2008, forgot about, and recently recalled--realizing that, as written, it was actually only a first scene. A bunch of drafting and outlining and tweaking and more drafting (and more tweaking, and more outlining...) later, it's a complete* draft.

Whoosh. That feels pretty good.

*Not going to say first, because I did write it before; but it's also not a finished story, even to the point where I'd show it to friends. I have to go back and change some more things in the beginning, making sure that the narrator's through-line of emotion and rationality is clear (and actually, er, makes sense). But Having An Ending is nothing to sneeze at, and that's what I have now, down in words and everything.
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Meanwhile, I have finished revising the story I wrote at VPXV last year. What with that and the flash piece I wrote after visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden, this summer has been wildly more productive than last summer--even if you factor in the part where I was silly and announced I was totally going to write 20k words on Whisper-Trail in June while exploring London and doing full-time research.

...but I did write a thousand or so words on Whisper-Trail last night, so progress is being made on that count too, if more slowly than I would prefer. (It's less terrible again. Gah, novel, can't even.)

Conclusion: for me, doing archival research meshes much better with fiction-writing than materials science research does.
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Revised "The Densities of Hearts" and sent it out. That makes six stories out to markets right now, which is a personal record.

Also a personal record: I have already made more submissions in 2012 than I have in any other year. (Just in short stories, not counting the 26 queries I've sent out on A Returning Power.) I guess...maybe I have actually done some things this year? Weird.

In other doing-things news, I have found housing in London and copied a bunch of pages out of the new edition of the Conway Letters and fought with a microfilm machine (the microfilm machine won) and attempted to read 17th-century invoices. The operative word in that last clause being "attempted". (The 17th-century invoices won, too.) My advisor thought I should practice reading seventeenth-century handwriting, and he was right.

This weekend is WisCon! I am on one panel:
Are Children People? Sun, 8:30–9:45 am Capitol A
Benjamin Billman (M), Tuppence, Alena McNamara, Jack Shoegazer, S. Brackett Robertson, Kate O'Brien Wooddell
Are children an oppressed group? Certainly our justifications for treating children as we do (deciding for them, speaking for them, requiring compliance) sound familiar: Their biological differences from us make them incapable of self-determination; we must coerce them for their own good. A few SF futures imagine children commonly emancipated (Triton); more often, groups of exceptional children rebel (Slan, Beggars in Spain); and of course the single exceptional child who escapes adult control is a trope—glorified (Matilda, Ender, Lyra)—or terrifying ("It's a Good Life"). SF has an uneasy relationship with children's liberation. Are we ready for children's liberation? And what would it look like?

At times when I am not on a panel, I will go to lots of other panels, hang around in the hallways chatting, go to the Tiptree Auction (but not actually bid on anything, based on previous evidence), try not to buy the whole dealer's room, dance at the Genderfloomp party, etc.

Two weeks from now, I'll be in England. What...is this life? (I don't know.)
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Getting toward the end of the short story, as-yet-untitled, previously mentioned.

Oh, how I adore this protagonist. Deeply messed up and tenacious as hell.

Not sure how anyone else will feel about the story, but I have been enjoying writing it--which is, in the end, maybe what counts. Wordcount's creeping up, still a bit low (2100 words just now, maybe as many as 2500 when it's done?) but the beginning might be a bit thin and who knows how revisions will go and anyway shortish short stories are okay.

It's kinda nice how this midterms period is not making me full of stress. I took a midterm on Friday; I spent all of yesterday afternoon on another one, and will do more on that today; I have a paper to write before spring break; but it's all just...things. It isn't "oh god midterms aaaaugh". The fact that I'm actually writing a story, and liking how it's going, attests (I think) to the good state of my brain.

(I think the last time I was this relaxed during midterms was, er, first semester sophomore year. Whee!)
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Bad ways to start the New Year: finally falling prey to a sickness that'd been creeping up on me, I suspect, since the end of the semester; not being able to help my dad move furniture yesterday.

Good ways to start the New Year: having ended up at my mother's house with few books and slow internet, I wrote a draft of a short story, "The War of the Mages", in one day. (Well, one day and a couple of months of thinking about it.) It's in the same world as A Returning Power, so I wanted to get the story written before I started sending the novel out; and, as a bonus, the Dell Award contest deadline is today and I had no stories that weren't currently at markets. So: story written, story sent off to Dell Award contest, in the space of a day. When they announce the winners, I can go back, revise, and then send it to markets. Basically, I win!

Today I came back to my dad's house and re-shelved the contents of 11 (out of 14) boxes of books. My bookcases now loom properly over my bed, so it has started to look something like home.
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My brain might be growing back. Rewrote the first scene in the yep-still-untitled short story, and I think this time it actually works. Um. Yeah. It's nice, having a brain. I mean--I have been writing, but there's a difference between putting sentences on a page and actually thinking about them.

The last of the last cake was eaten a couple of days ago, marking the first time since my birthday that there hasn't been cake in the house. But I discovered today that Whole Foods, at least the one I go to, sells maple cotton candy. Temptation officially has been succumbed to. This is probably bad for my soul, or teeth, or something. Oh well.

I was thinking about dried things this morning. On my birthday I received flowers--they are by now very dead and were finally disposed of today. A couple of stalks of little purple flowers dried out in preference to other modes of dying, though, and I saved them (for a time, at least). Remembered, carrying them back up, finding a dried leaf in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell earlier this summer when it fell out from between the pages. At the time it must have been something treasured, a keepsake, but now I have no memory of when I put it in there. Odd how your own keepsakes can become someone else's treasures, even if that someone else is yourself in the future.

Nice book recs on home and family in comments to my post yesterday. I think part of my curiosity is why my generation chose, or stumbled on, or fell en masse into the reading of speculative fiction as a mode of exploring thoughts around home. That's one of those questions that may well not have an answer, though.

Speaking of books, I'm rereading some Wimsey. Murder Must Advertise, right now.
I also read Brave New World for the first time. I had been meaning to do so for quite a while, but never quite got around to it, til now. Peculiarly preserved gender dynamics, retro-future tech... I hadn't known how much Shakespeare it actually has in it. Not quite what I was expecting, not quite what I wanted, but interesting.
And I had something else out from the library, but now I can't remember what it was.

I've also seen a couple of movies since last recording here--
Captain Blood, a very swashbuckly Flynn movie that took a peculiarly long time to get to the swashing and buckling but did eventually deliver.
...and a rewatch of Princess Bride. Which swashbuckles all the way through.
Did I post here about going to see the newest, and last, Harry Potter movie? I did see it. Behind us, before the movie started, a middle-aged woman was talking about how odd it was that the theater had so few children--since, after all, Harry Potter was a children's book. And I frowned, because, well, yeah, in the Harry Potter generation here (may I humbly submit this over the Oughts or the Noughts or whatever ghastly phrase we've got now?), and not so much a kid anymore.
Anyway, the actual movie was as impressive as it ought to be, with that budget, and there were some moments that made me extremely happy. There were quite a few moments that did not make me happy, but then I never really liked the seventh Harry Potter book--I only read it once.

Probably I am missing various media-things. If I think of them I shall add them. Now I should go finish up my video for the REU program, but I might type up the bits of Queen of Spades from this week's notebook-writing instead.
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Words! 659 of them! Technically I wrote them yesterday and just typed them up today (and swapped some things around/added things), but still. I plan to add more later, actually written today.

Which is progress on the short story which currently has no title, which used to be "Nettles for Penelope" and now is I have no idea.

But the Iliad is working itself in nicely, and so is the Little Mermaid, which makes me happy. Maybe the Odyssey will come--well, that's more the first part of the story, and this is the middle bit, and in a small way I think the Odyssey is already in this part, too.

Not sure what the third part of the story will be like or about, yet; there's a crisis at the end of the middle that I haven't gotten to yet, and don't completely know what that will be about or how (or if) it will resolve, so I have no idea what anyone will do about it. Maybe Aeschylus will come into it somehow: the end of the Oresteia has always frustrated me, with the whole part where Athena talks down the Furies from being saturated in "corrupt" female power into fertility-and-crops-and-wholesome-female-goodness. It would be nice to get a chance to do it properly.
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I should probably not say anything, because it will squeak and run away, but--I have a story.

It has no title yet. It does have names (baby name websites rock) and a list of fairy tales and bits of mythology that I want to use, most of them twisted. I am writing the scenes out of order; it's the first time I have really done that for a story. Usually I get the beginning and write until I get to the end, and then stop. This time? Who knows. I know the style, though, at least vaguely, which should be enough to get me somewhere.

Having a new story is nice.

Also nice: having done the last homework assignment for real analysis. Now there's only the final left! And The Mob's birthday happened recently, so we had a tea party on Sunday, and we baked a lemon cake with frosting which was delicious--people, including me, were shamelessly scraping the pan for crumbs. The weather has been indeterminate but pretty lately: one day I woke up to find that I couldn't see across the quad for the fog. Today it was misty in the morning, but that faded into a gorgeous afternoon to beat all gorgeous afternoons.

In a week, classes will be over. Um. Wow. Excuse me as I run away from that thought...
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So I'm (re?)writing a short story. It started life as a first chapter written for my YA GLBTQ lit class last J-term; now I'm going back in, realizing it doesn't need to be a whole novel, and overhauling it into short-story form. (Longish short story, but still.)

(This may also have something to do with it--but hey, why not, and I've been meaning to do something with this idea, anyway.)

What's weird about this story is, okay, first off that it has no SF/F-y elements, but secondly and more importantly that it's set right here right now today. I have a bunch of early-teen characters, and all of them are at least vaguely geeky. All of them have accounts at a bunch of different websites: various blogs, Tumblr, Twitter. I'm having to get the cultural references right--research included currently-popular fandoms at fanfiction.net. I have to do the research, but this is really familiar ground for me. I know where to look, even if I don't know the particular details when I'm starting out.

Which is a complete change from a lot of my other stories which try to steer clear of particular here-now references, maybe a cell phone or two but largely that quote-unquote timeless stuff, things that won't change too much over the next few years or maybe in the next decade. It's weird to see how the story comes out, what changes and what stays the same.

...I don't know. Is making specific references a good or bad thing? Does it date a work, or enhance it? If I get one little bit wrong, will it throw people completely out of the story--more than if I just left it vague? Possibly there are no good answers.

(Either way, I think maybe I will try to keep some of this specificity when I slide back into genre, even if it's not what social networking sites my characters frequent. What people do on the Internet, at least in my corner of it, is something I know a lot about, so maybe I should make that level of know-how and detail my baseline for everything else.)
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"The Day the God Died", still coming in at 2500 words, just went out to the Dell Award contest. It is not the best story I have ever written, but it is definitely the best story I have ever written in two days. (Counting my experiment with National Novel Writing Day.)

About 30 hours, all in all, from "oh no Dell Award deadline!" to "well, there isn't all that much I can do to it at this point". A couple of hours ago I realized that the conference to which they invite you if you win a) is during the end of my spring break and b) features Connie Willis as a guest of honor. At which point I went all goggle-eyed and flabbergasted and wished I had more time or more ways to make it better or or or. But in the end, you get to "there isn't all that much more I can do to it", and you click submit.

Time to update my submissions spreadsheet, cross my fingers, eat a candy cane, and watch a bit more of the TV show they made of Archer's Goon back in the 80's. Then maybe I will read something.

Took a break this afternoon to read:
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, McBride: Silly, quick read. I enjoyed it, and it distracted me entirely, which was probably a feat and a half, today.
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And we have second draft! I have sent it to a few people for another read-through, intersecting with but not the same as the people who very kindly read it for me last night.

Second draft is, I think, much improved.

Now it is time for me to go off and eat lunch and do Something Else for a few hours. Too bad the jigsaw puzzle's all done, because that is always a nice way to distract a brain.

Gratuitous mention here of awesome friends who have been encouraging me with extended dinosaur and coal mine metaphors as well as music, and who gave me many excellent apocalypse suggestions last night. They rock.

(I kind of knew it had to be a singularity, but I didn't want it to be a singularity. And when I got up today I realized the singularity was incidental to the actual story as a whole. But the apocalypse suggestions were still helpful.)
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...some... number of hours later, I have a first draft of a short story! It is 2500 words long. Its current title is "The Day the God Died". It may be terrible, but it is finished and it is mine.

I have sent it to a number (four?) of people who have said they will give me feedback by tomorrow morning; I will then attempt a rewrite of the thing, and send it to a few more people tomorrow afternoon, who will get it back to me, I'll polish it, and then I will send it to the Dell Award...

...exhausting afternoon/evening, but very worth it. I had forgotten how much fun it was to have a deadline.

(If anyone wants to be in the tomorrow-afternoon readers group, let me know--I'm off to bed nowish, so probably too late for the one tonight.)

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In my grand tradition, I forgot that the Dell Award existed until just now. Deadline is on Tuesday. Do I have a short story to send in? Of course I do not! I am informed, however, that I may as well try to write one.

So--here we go. Why not? That's, what, two days?

Opening up all my "idea" files and compiling a document of whatever strikes my fancy in three, two, one...

ETA, threeish hours later: Concept, playlist, outline; more music provided by [livejournal.com profile] epicrauko; 1200 words. Dinner soon, I hope. Currently on upswing--it may actually come together!
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Good thing about doing what you feel is right: sometimes it works out.

246 / 350

Oof, it feels good to get a nice solid chunk of writing in. At first I flailed and wailed about not knowing what happened yet, and then I figured out that in fact I knew what happened next: it was just the "I don't have enough story left for all these words!" thing that happens around this point of a novel.

So I stuck the next bit in right where it wanted to go (which was half a chapter of, mostly, pure exposition--but I can fix that, all together now, In The Next Draft) and carried on.

Also, after another quick polish this morning, the story will be back out today, and also I will get my notecards (my glorious notecards!) for re-structuring my novel-from-last-summer. Which, like a hydra, grows two new problems every time I think I've lopped one off--that is, figured out what one is and how I might conceivably fix it. Hooray.
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Not a con report, although Fourth Street is lovely so far.

(Except for the part where I took a wrong turn on the bike path and ended up going a few miles out of my way. But, you know, these things happen, and technically that was before I got to the con.)

What this post actually is: Hooray for finishing things! I have a first draft (2800 words) of a story I am currently calling "The Bodies of Erinyes". (It's the far-future SF ancient-Greece one.) Unlike possibly any story I have written before, I outlined this first, created documents in Scrivener for all the scenes in the outline, and then went through and wrote each of them, not necessarily working on them in order. A couple of scenes have been combined, but mostly it's just as I outlined it. Likely this will change (drastically) in revisions, but it's interesting to watch my own writing process change.

This means that I'll have headspace for whatever new story ideas Fourth Street stuffs into my head. (So far, I've mostly got revision ideas for this one, but that's okay too.)

Also, on the novel:

218 / 350
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Things! Lots and lots of things.

Classes started! I have sociology and philosophy and calculus III and physics. All of my classes seem good, so far--admittedly, I've only had each of them once--but still. On a related note, no one told me that I would want the textbooks on the first day of class. I have weekend homework in all my classes. As half of my textbooks are winging their way toward me across the country, well... I'll be spending some time in the library tomorrow.

Today I auditioned for a couple of a cappella groups. (Singing Build Me Up Buttercup, hence the post title.) I would be well pleased to get into either of them. Felt like the auditions went well, but you never really do know.

Other things that happened today were my sociology and philosophy readings. Have discovered that Plato demands stops to go and stare at a game of internet solitaire and not think about philosophy for a while. Early 20th century sociologists are also difficult to read. However, the ideas are intriguing, and I'm looking forward to the class.

My friends rock. This makes me very happy.

Also, I am writing again, poking my way through a new story. So far I have a girl, a hilltop, some mist... we'll see where I go with this. For now I am just pleased to have time to put down a few new words on a document.
aamcnamara: (alena)
I appear to have finished the first revision of the fondly-called Dead People In Lakes Story, which may, in fact, be called "As Large as Alone", except that that is as confusing of a title to parse at first glance as "The Only Thing I Know I Am Is Lonely" is. (Maybe I will do a poll eventually.)

Rollercoaster ride of emotions typical to revisions happened today. It was a blast. Literally five minutes between "this story rocks!" and "augh I can't find a way to fit 'sly' into this sentence, this story will never work".

Other than that, I had one of those gloriously productive days where you don't feel like you have any more energy than normal, but you get up and start doing things and then you do the next thing and it never quite occurs to you to stop. In this manner, I cut my hair, figured out how to open up a windowfan that's been in the bathroom window for years, cleaned it out for the first time in as many years, did laundry for college-packing... you get the idea.

So it's unlikely that anything else (see: novel revisions, drafting of new story) will get done tonight. Instead I may read more of The Pinhoe Egg (completing my reread of all the Chrestomanci books but Conrad's Fate, which is in a box on its way to college for me, and the rest of Magicians of Caprona, which I stopped reading the other day for no reason I can remember), and then go to bed.
aamcnamara: (alena)
Things I have:
A first scene for this story
A name for the captain of their ship (Captain Sallaz)
A partially-filled duffle bag
A partially-filled box
More laundry to do.

Also, I applied for a workstudy job in the library at my college! So hopefully they will think I'm cool enough to do it, even though I'm a first-year.

August 2015

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