Sunday, March 23, 2008

Greetings from Orbital . . .

So I'm here at Orbital 2008, which is this year's Eastercon. The Eastercon is apparently a long-running thing in the UK--it's a science fiction convention of a more literary bent, a bit like WorldCon, only not quite as enormous. It's held on Easter weekend, because that tends to be a slow weekend in the hotel industry, so it's easier to find a place to hold it for a reasonable rate. (Interestingly, there's a convention in Atlanta called Frolicon that likewise is held Easter weekend for much the same reason. A rather, um, different kind of convention, though.)

I am here because one of the guests is a writer named Tanith Lee. There's also a writer named Neil Gaiman in attendance, and it's been groovy to see him, but I honestly wouldn't have come if it had just been him, since he actually shows up in America more often than not. Tanith Lee hasn't been to America in some time, so if I wanted to see her, the mountain had to come to Mohammed.

My sister had a large collection of Tanith Lee books on her shelves and I read my way through them a number of times. The one that particularly stuck with me, especially in my adolescence, was a book called Don't Bite the Sun. I love that book to bits, I will pimp it to everyone until the day I die. (By the way, it's back in print, bound along with its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine under the name Biting the Sun. Look in science fiction paperbacks under Lee. You can thank me later.)

She also wrote many other books that I read over and over again,, weaving their way into the fabric of my inner life--The Birthgrave, The Silver Metal Lover, the Flat Earth series . . . I could go for days listing titles, but I'll spare you. I consider her a huge influence on my writing, perhaps not in a direct I-want-to-write-just-like-her way, but a lot of my clumsy first efforts at fantasy stories owed a lot to her. (Thank heavens there was no internet back then, or some of the things I wrote might still be out there to be Googled. At it was, the internet was still in its infancy in those days, so my bad writing in public was largely confined to computer bulletin board systems that are now utterly obsolete.)

So I bought my membership ages in advance and when it came time to decide if I was going or not, I booked the flight. I made it one of my New Year's Resolutions--Attend Orbital 2008.

Orbital is a very relaxed little gathering of geeks. Reminds me a bit of Chattacon in Chattanooga--panels where people talk about geek stuff, including panels about writing and the almighty question of How To Get Published. As I mentioned, I submitted the first 3,000 words of my novel and I'll be getting it critiqued on Monday. I met Martin Owton, who was organizing it and he introduced me to Gaie Sebold and Sarah Ellender, the lovely ladies who will be doing the critiquing. (When I gave them my name, one of them said "Sheila O'Shea! Oh, Soft Places, right?" I guess that's a good sign if they remember the title.) I've been to a few writerly panels and it's been really inspiring and made me that much more determined to whip this thing of mine into shape and get it sent out.

And I met Tanith Lee. She was a sort of foyer area, talking to a few people and I hovered a bit and finally found a moment, steeled my nerve and walked up to her.

"I came all the way from the United States of America to see you," I said, "And I think that probably says it all."

And then I burst into tears.

Thankfully, she didn't seem to be too disturbed by this. She was genuinely surprised that someone would go to such trouble for her. I tried to explain, between sobs, how much her work had meant to me, how Don't Bite the Sun had been a mirror for my awkward adolescence, how I felt much like the protagonist who had too much of an imagination to fit in her head, lived in a kind of paradise and yet didn't quite fit in.

It is such an amazing moment to be able to look someone in the eye, someone who has created things that uplifted you, that inspired you, that filtered their way into your sense of self and to be able to tell that person how much those creations meant to you.

Ms. Lee (I still feel weird calling her Tanith) was very kind and very inspiring to me. She said she hoped that I wasn't too disappointed to find out that she was merely a human being. I assured her it wasn't a problem. She asked if I was a writer; I told her I was and I told her about the novel that I'm bashing into shape right now. She said she was looking forward to reading it when it was published.

I met her again the next day, and she signed my copies of Don't Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine. She wrote a lovely note, pointing out that what we get out of books comes from within us. "You are the magician," she wrote.

I'll wrap this entry up with this--when I arrived on Friday morning, I had to fill out a something called a Landing Card which they make you fill out if you're an alien entering the UK. They had a line for "Occupation." I filled it in with the word WRITER.

On one level, it's not like they're going to track me down and say "You lie! Your bills are paid by being a paralegal!" On another level, it is a signal sent to the universe, a signal of intention, the intention to make that declaration a completely honest one.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"So, when do I get to read it?"

Not everybody asked that, of course, when I mentioned I just finished my draft, but quite a few people did.  Somebody even asked me that when I was still in the midst of burrowing through the tense-shifting rewrite.

The answer is, at this point, "not yet."

When I crossed the finish line in 2006, I did send out copies of the result for people to read.  Only one person managed to read it all the way through and tell me what he thought of it.  (He liked it, which was quite encouraging.)  That's sort of reason number one--I don't really feel like hanging on the edge of the "what did you think of it?" seat until the next step is figuring out what literary agents might be interested in it.

When I crossed the finish line in 2007, I was even more reluctant to show the world the result, because there was a lot I put in there in haste that I feel downright embarrassed by.  So that's the other part of it--I need to clean up those bits so I'm not cringing when I'm reading them.  Because if I'm cringing to read them, I can't imagine what someone who isn't me would think of them.  And if, for some weird reason, they liked it, I'd be put in the unfortunate position of writing to please someone who enjoyed something that I'm not altogether thrilled with myself.  That's no way to be creating art, as near as I can tell.

I have come to terms with the fact that I'm not all that good a writer on the first pass.  When I read things I've dashed off quickly, I kick myself for overusing words like "actually" and repeating clever phrases twice in one paragraph.  Backspace, cut and paste, edit buttons . . . these tools are my friends.

(Funnily enough, my vague reputation as a spoken word artist is maintained by avoiding these things entirely.  Every Sunday night at a little coffeehouse called Java Monkey, there's a poetry reading called Java Monkey Speaks.  For longer than I care to contemplate, my usual thing there is what I call my "hat trick"--I arrive just as the sign-up sheet is put up, I put my name on the list and then in the half-hour or so before the show, I write in a notebook until Kodac Harrison starts the show.  Then when my turn comes up, I get up and read what I just wrote.  It goes over surprisingly well, but it probably helps that it's spoken into the air to dissolve instead of sitting on a page for you to read and notice how crap it is.)

While perfectionism has stymied me from even starting to write for far too long, now that I've mastered the art of setting it aside to get the words down, I think I'm ready to let it back in for a spell and see about fixing things up a bit.

In the meantime, no, you don't get to read it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

97,769 words . . .

It's a start.  I have now officially fused my past two NaNoWriMo efforts into a unified manuscript.

For those of you wondering how 50,000-odd words plus another 50,000-odd words adds up to less than 100,000 words, allow me to clarify.  My NaNo 2006 effort (Soft Places) was written in the form of diary entries by the narrator.  (I even dated the entries contemporaneously, and threw in things that were happening at the time.)  The 2007 NaNo (The Things Behind the Sun) was written in first person present tense (though I did include references to the narrator continuing to write things down in her diary.)

I decided, ultimately, to do the entire thing in first person present tense.  This meant I had to take the diary entries and rewrite them accordingly.  At first, I was trying too hard to rewrite and perfect everything as I go, then I decided it would be faster and more effective to just cut, paste, redo the verbs and do a little rewriting here and there to smooth the transitions.

So I have finally, as of tonight, completed that process.  I have a relatively unified manuscript of 97,769 words, according to the Word Count function on Microsoft Word.

It still needs work.  A lot of it.  I'm not going to go into a great deal of detail about what the book is about (it's about ninety-eight thousand words, at this point, and that's all you're really getting out of me) but I'll continue, I hope, to talk about the process as I go.

There are still many things about it I'm not 100% happy with, things that I plowed on past on the first pass because, hell, it's NaNo, just get the words out and fix it later.  (That's another reason the word count dropped slightly on the rewrite--there were quite a few things I decided to go ahead and excise while I was at it.)  But at the same time, it feels good to be able to talk about The Manuscript I'm Working On instead of about This Neat Idea I Have For A Novel.

I've also taken the first 3,000 or so words and submitted them to a writing workshop that's going to be held at Orbital 2008, a writerly sci-fi type convention that's being held in the UK.  (I'm flying all the way from Atlanta, Georgia, because one of the guests is Tanith Lee, who is one of my favorite living authors in the history of the written word.)  It should be genuinely interesting to see what someone who isn't familiar with the places I'm describing will think of it.

So.  Well.  There we are.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to run around in circles and jump up and down for a bit.