Less Time to Write=New Perspectives

I’ve been busier than usual with community activities, recertifying as a fitness professional, and researching and planning the switch to an electric car. Time well spent, but meanwhile, book eight in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series has been getting about an hour a day of attention. I don’t feel like a full-time writer.

On the plus side, when I’m less wrapped up in the book, I question everything about it. Does the plot really work? It has to be meaningful, not just a puzzle being solved. How does it further the lead characters’ series arcs? How does the very nature of the mystery challenge their development? How does it interact with their personal lives?

Then there’s this question that comes up with every book: Is the antagonist character too much like prior antagonists?  And how does this new enemy make the perfect opponent to fit my main characters’ strengths and—even more important—their flaws?

How many components of the plot need to change? Are there aspects of it that might turn off my long-term fans? If I feel it doesn’t sustain visionary fiction element of the series, my readers might think so, too. I have to create stakes that are  serious as death without the threat of murder.

This blog post was my “thinking aloud session.” I’ve got some revisions to make, but I’m more confident of them now. Thanks for listening!

It’s Finally Happened … by Amber Foxx

I have a post due, and I have no idea what to write. I got Shadow Family back from my editor, after the usual back and forth about what to rewrite and why, and now I’m going through the book for the last time with her changes. The last time before sending it to my proofreader, that is. And then I’ll look it over again once those corrections are in. The upside of all this is that I’ve practically memorized all my books from so much repeated exposure to every page. I’m not likely to forget details that could affect the next book. I maintain a file of master notes on the series just in case, keeping track of characters’ ages, birthdays,  and unique mannerisms, names of minor secondary characters, family trees, and more, but I have the file of my protagonist’s personal memories and life experiences in my head. Okay, back to work. My readers are waiting for this book to come out.

 

Changing Pace by Amber Foxx

I sent Shadow Family, the seventh Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, to my editor at 3:30 a.m. Monday September 16th. I lived with this book for seventeen months from first draft to hitting send. I was immersed in it for weeks nonstop as my deadline approached, hardly getting out except for running or teaching yoga, while I worked through feedback from multiple beta readers and critique partners. After that round of cuts and revisions, I read the whole book aloud, acting it out as if recording an audiobook in order to make the final adjustments. For a few days after I hit send, I had to remind myself not to read a finished scene aloud as I worked on the next book. It’s useful later in the process, but it slows me down when I should be letting my imagination fly. And I’m still reminding myself not to perfect every line. After all, I may end up cutting it.

I’m experiencing something like the disoriented state of mind that used to hit at the end of a college semester when I’d turned in final grades and had no more faculty meetings to attend, no deadlines, and practically no schedule. Open space in my life and in my head. Having time to catch up on my neglected social life feels wonderful. I’m also free to explore and experiment with the new work in progress, discovering its themes and its depths, surprising myself as I go. After the perfectionism of the previous weeks, it’s liberating. I’m free to mess up!

At this moment in my life as a writer … by Amber Foxx

At this moment, nearing midnight, I’m stuck on a certain paragraph in chapter twenty-nine. It’s Act Three. The tension needs to be high. But I can’t skip my protagonist’s inner processes, either. She has to think, feel and plan. Is the paragraph too slow? I like the section before it and the section after it, but this transition is a clunker. What if I move the middle line to the end? How much can I cut and still make sense? Should I just skip it and move on? No. I’m revising. I’m not letting myself off the hook. There could be some error of logic, some failure to follow my character’s heart and mind, that will affect the validity of the subsequent part that I— so far—like. (How many times have I cut something I loved because it no longer worked after I fixed what came before it?)

I tried rearranging the lines. Not much better. Maybe I can cut the whole paragraph. Replace it with one tight sentence once I grasp what the scene needs as a transition.

I could say more about this battle with the paragraph, but I have to get back to it.  That’s what’s happening tonight in my life as a writer.

Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

The Fig Tree, Yoga, and the Middle of the Book

At first glance, the fig tree in the courtyard outside my apartment looks like a round mound of large green leaves and tiny green fruits. Today, I studied it longer, though, and began to see golden-brown fruit hidden in the green. The longer my mind was attuned to shape and color of a ripe fig, the more of them I discovered. Circling the tree slowly, I reached in and harvested the fruit, choosing only the figs that were perfectly ready. My four neighbors in our building had come out into the courtyard, and I enjoyed the sight of my cupped hands offering the bounty and my neighbors’ hands one by one taking their share. Chatting sociably, we ate sun-warmed, rain-watered figs.

Later, as I began my yoga practice, I chose the theme of doing it differently. Normally, I practice without music, so I selected a CD from the bottom of the stack, strange contemplative music with drones and drums that I hadn’t listened to since I moved over a year ago. I started with a pranayama technique I seldom practice, changed the sequencing of familiar poses, and replaced others with asanas I’d neglected for a while. The idea was to change the flow of my energy and open myself to new possibilities.

I did it as preparation for writing, getting ready to tackle the middle . According to my word count, I’ve completed fifty percent of book seven in my series. The chapter in progress will be a major pivot point, with revelations about the crime and about a ghost. It should set up future challenges for Mae Martin, adding to the necessity of a trip to a place she’d rather not go—her old home town. The problem is, it feels like the beginning of Act Two, and it should be the middle of it.

I’m not cutting until I finish the first draft, though. As a pantser, I don’t yet know which of the subplots in the first half will turn out to be integral to the story and which can be removed. Several of them surprised me, but then, my ongoing characters have lives of their own. I’ve never suffered for lack of material. This is where my notes on possible directions and loose ends come in. I get floods of ideas and record them in case I forget, but as the book progresses, some of those ideas may not fit. Some of the loose ends will turn out to be dead ends I can cut. At this point, I look at that list and see a lot of major events yet to come, a lot of little green figs, but that may not mean the book is going to be too long. The pace should be picking up. I might really be half-way through. When this draft is done and I can step back and study it after a break, I’ll be able to see the subplots that contribute to the whole, like ripe figs hidden in the leaves.

I may have to rearrange events, the way I did my yoga practice. Perhaps that pivot point in the middle would make a good beginning or a good chapter three. Maybe it’ll be the beginning of Act Three. Revisions like that would be hard but satisfying. In fact, if it’s difficult, it may be more fun than if it was easy.

And I have an end goal. Not just a story, but readers. I won’t see them the way I saw my neighbor’s hands taking figs from mine, but creating a new book leads to the same joy: sharing.

Small Change, Big Change

When I started improvising my current work in progress, I had a seed for a plot in mind, but it changed directions because of one small thing. My first-round chapter-by-chapter critique partner told me that the name I was using for a character’s business, Minerva Press, is a real publishing house. No big deal, I thought. It would be simple to change it. She would name her small press after a lesser-known goddess. Having already established that this character was part Finnish, I picked Loviatar, a Finnish goddess, from the pantheon of my search results, though I had no idea why anyone would name a business after her. She’s a dark goddess, the blind daughter of death, the bringer of scourges into the world.

Rather than reject this goddess, I kept reading about her. Something told me to stick with her.

One article mentioned that that Loviatar is popular with black metal musicians. What, I wondered, is black metal? At the time, I didn’t know the difference between black metal, heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, melodic death metal and Viking metal, or that most of these genres even existed. The next thing I knew, I was watching such bands on YouTube and digging into Nordic black metal and the world view of that culture, finding some unexpected connections with (not kidding) the Romantic Movement and Shelley’s views on Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. My character is a poet, and faculty advisor to a poetry club. With the name of her small press, her backstory changed. Her situation of danger changed. The motives of her enemies changed. The only thing that didn’t change is my taste in music; I didn’t become a fan of black metal when she did.

I may have a title for the story that’s evolving: Dark Goddess.

Strangely, many of the plot elements fit better into the new version of the story than the old one. Clues that I’d planted, puzzling myself, fell into place. If I’d finished the first draft before sharing chapters, it would be a different story. Maybe I still would have liked it, but it would have been lighter, less complicated, and more predictable. And I don’t ever want to be predictable. Even to myself!