Weighing In: Week 46

In late October, I will have been working on weight loss for about a year.

Here's the salient data at this point

Weight Watchers Beginning Weight: 224.8 pounds
(This is the highest weight I was ever at with WW, and now the weight they consider my starting weight, because I'm back at the center, rather than at work.)
Weight Watchers Current Weight: 205.6
Total Weight Watchers Lost: 19.2

Wii Weight Beginning: 223.8 pounds
Current Wii Weight: 203.7 pounds
Total Wii Weight Lost: 20.1 pounds

About the same. :) There are differences, of course, given times of day and wardrobe, for example.

Good stuff: Weight loss has not changed appreciably over the summer. This is also bad stuff, but it is not gaining anything back, so we will take it as a win.

Bad stuff: Still really inclined to eat things that are not good for me. However, the good part of this is that I am more willing to balance out an indulgence with exercise or cutting back the next day. We move in the right direction.

Really good stuff: Can climb stairs without being winded. Can dance for 3 hours straight. Walk a lot. Enjoy feeling more healthy. Hope this will spur me on to greater heights of healthy.

Wishes: That someone would make celery taste like chocolate, but still have no calories. :)

The Writing Process and Tobias Buckell

Here's Toby Buckell on his writing process. Jenga with a skyscraper indeed. Read on...

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Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? (If it varies, please keep one project in mind as you answer these questions.)

Toby: It varies from book to book, to be honest. But overall, and of late, I’ve turned toward a system of outlining as much as possible before I start the first chapter. As I write, I give myself the freedom to do cooler things than those indicated in the outline, but the outline is there for me to fall back on always.

I make notes as I go along, sort of a conversation with my future self. I make notes on future chapters, adding to the outline, or telling myself not to forget certain things. I also make notes on current or past chapters that will need additions as I go back to revisions. I do this quickly, so as not to interrupt flow and get stuck fiddling.

Tamago: Which part of writing--drafting, revising, critique from others--do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Toby: I really enjoy the first draft the most. I love the act of creating the book for the first time, and bringing something totally new into the world. The excitement of pulling it all together really drives me.

For me editing is the part I enjoy the least. It’s also critical to the book, it’s where it gets polished into a finely cut gem. But it also paralyzes me with self doubt and fear, due to the fact that I used to struggle with drafts and make stories actively worse at the start of my career. I tend to be scared that I’m making a book worse. I also worry that each change made while drafting will have ripples and unintended consequences down the line. I feel like I’m playing Jenga with a skyscraper when I’m doing revisions.

Learning how to cope with all that to revise and revise my books into better shape has been really important. Even though I dislike that element of writing, it’s incredibly important.

Tamago: What is the longest it's ever taken you to complete a draft? The shortest?

Toby: The longest it’s taken me to write a book is two and a half years of sole focus. I’ve written a book on the side, for fun, over a three year span, but it was something I just wrote in between the gaps of a couple other projects that were under contract. The two and half year book was my second book. I kept restarting it, struggling to find the right energy and tone and voice.

The fastest I’ve written a book? Three months.

Tamago: Do you participate in a writing group, or do you walk your own path? Why do you choose the approach you do?

Toby: That’s complicated! I used to be in writing groups. I attended Clarion in 1999, and it was a big help in compressing the time spent fumbling my way along the curve to getting my work to publishable quality. I also attended the Cajun Sushi Hamsters from Hell workshop in Cleveland, driving 3.5 hrs there and then 3.5 hrs back once a month. I then switched to a nearer workshop in Columbus, Ohio. I workshopped a lot of my short fiction there.

About eleven years ago, when trying to figure out how to workshop our first novels, I joined a group of writers for the first Blue Heaven workshop, a 10 day workshop held once a year. Charlie Finlay created a model for how to workshop a novel, and I workshopped my first four novels at Blue Heaven and credit to taking me up to a whole other level of skill.

I am no longer workshopping as much. I still go to Blue Heaven, but the focus is less on workshopping individual books and more brainstorming all aspects of a career. And for me, an uninterrupted space of time to jam hard on writing.

I currently am writing without workshopping. I don’t think, by any stretch of the imagination, that I’ve mastered the novel. But I do feel comfortable continuing my experimentation and learning without instant feedback in this period of my career.

Will I return to workshopping? If things line up for it, I still find the quick, incisive minds of peers to be a way to get myself to aim higher and it’s been good for me in the past.

Tamago: How do you know when something you're writing isn't working?

Toby: That’s always a tough one. I can be frustrated and have a hard time writing something that can still end up working for a reader. I’ve learned that a tough time writing doesn’t equal a tough time reading. And something that was easy to write could be riddled with issues. It’s one reason I found workshopping beneficial earlier on is that it helped me get outside point of view on whether a story was working.

Now I tend to rely on instinct. Often writer’s block isn’t so much an inability to write, but your hindbrain trying to get you to notice something. If I find writing isn’t so much hard, but teeth-pulling hard and blocking me, I tend to stop what I’m doing and take a long step back. It’s usually my subconscious trying to tell me something. Instead of forcing it, I tend to ask myself ‘what’s my instinct trying to tell me needs fixed quick so we can get back into laying track.’ When I reframe block with that attitude, it helps.

Tamago: Has your writing process changed over time?

Toby: I used to write with less outline, more organized notes around a rough outline that got filled in ahead of me as I wrote. With each novel I’ve started to outline more and more. When I wrote my third novel, I’d had a lot of time to spend mulling it over before I started it. I found the words came rather quickly, as a result. And when some friends helped me outline in detail the last third, after I got to the point where I ran out of my own outline, the writing came easily again and I was quite delighted with the structure and pacing of the book.

Keeping that in mind, when I started work on Arctic Rising, I also was dealing with the after affects a heart defect had on my energy levels, so I had to work smart, not hard. So I created as detailed an outline as I could imagine to write the book. I don’t think I could have managed the book if it weren’t for that, as I was perpetually exhausted then.

For the last two books I’ve written, I’ve spent weeks before writing chapter one on what I would have considered in 2004 as utterly insanely, unnecessarily, detailed outlines. Everything I can imagine goes in them. The last one I wrote was a 15,000 word outline. It’s been really helpful.

Tamago: A great deal of your writing involves where you grew up. How important do you think it is for writers to use what they know, even when they write science fiction, adventure, and fantasy?

Toby: People from the Caribbean tell me that even when I’m not writing obviously with Caribbean elements they’re still in most of my stories. I think we’re always dealing with the things we have experienced and carry with us in a variety of ways, it’s just that I’m from somewhere different and it becomes a bit more obvious to people not from that same location. I used to think science fiction and fantasy was insanely exotic and wild on a lot more axes than I do now, because I wasn’t living in the US. Once I moved here I suddenly understood that SF/F authors were using hella amounts of cultural influence that they swim in, but don’t necessarily see. To me it seemed wild and out there.

What I think I do do, however, is try to investigate the invisible stuff around us because, having crossed over, I’m aware it exists and am always trying to interrogate it, pull it out and look at it. And I do tend to find it interesting when writers can look beyond their assumptions and begin to pull in more of that.

In case you think I’m full of crack, I recommend going back and reading a science fiction story written in the 1950s. Can you spot all the cultural assumption buried in it? Then realize that a lot of what’s being written now can look just like that to someone who’s *today* outside of that culture.

Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date? Why?

Toby: My favorite project is always my latest one! Or, to be more honest, it’s the next project I’m starting up. I am like a magpie, the new shiny is always the most exciting shiny. Sometimes it can be hard to be on tour and expected to talk about the last book that just came out. “What, that thing? I can do even better tricks now, and plus, I already read that thing, like, six or seven times over. Nothing surprising in there.”

I’m somewhat interested in having a long career so that someday I can look back several decades and attain some perspective. Because I don’t have it on my books.

Now I definitely have favorites in my short fiction. But I feel like a parent being asked ‘who’s your favorite kid?’ I mean, I put so much of myself into every project, and each one was the best thing I could make at the time, it feels like an insult to the me-that-was-writing-that-project to downplay it. He worked so hard!

Tamago: How much research do you generally do for your projects?

Toby: I saw a quote from a writer, somewhere, that said the writing of books was just to justify their horrible research addiction. I don’t think I can even quantify it, I’m constantly hoarding information that might fit in somewhere for some reason.

Tamago: Besides the big firsts (getting an agent, publishing your first novel), what moments have you had that made you think, "hey, I'm actually a writer?”

Toby: There are always baller moments where someone invites you to be a guest of honor, or to speak somewhere. Where your words have gotten someone excited enough to pay you to go somewhere you’ve never been. Those are nice for the ego, no doubt. But the bigger moments come from interesting mail that indicates you’ve had an effect on someone. People who tell you you’ve changed their life in some small, or non-small, way, that really gets me in the feels every time. I fell in love with words because they changed my life. To know I’m doing that, that makes me feel like I’m doing that same thing with my words that words did to me. And that is when I know, for sure, that I’m actually a writer.

Weight Loss Update and Beginning of New Updates

Hey guys!

I fell off the posting of these during the summer of Intense First Drafting (TM), but that doesn't mean I've stopped losing weight. As a matter of fact, while I'm not at my lowest weight of 202.2, I'm fairly close to that, which means I'm satisfied.

So, here's some data.

Starting Weight: 223.8
Current Weight: 203.7
Weight Lost: 20.1

I've gone back to Weight Watchers Centers, because Weight Watchers at Work stopped, and they've got my beginning weight at 224.8, as that's the highest I've been for them, rather than my starting 224 from last October. It's all good. Here's their report from 2 weeks ago.

Starting Weight: 224.8
Current Weight: 207.6
Weight Lost: 17.2

Yes, Weight Watchers is an afternoon weigh in, as opposed to my morning weigh in. It does make a difference.

***

This spring/summer, I went to 2 conventions that had excellent dances, and I danced for 3-4 hours at both of them. No problem. THAT was one of the things that I really had been missing. I can also climb stairs now.

Bummer: I am working on some serious plantar fasciitis in my heel, and need supports. Stay tuned.

Also bummer: A friend is pre-diabetes. This is bad for her, but I am hoping to serve as a good example.

Question: Do I need more synthyroid? I'm getting enough sleep, but I fall asleep in the car a lot. Soon, a conversation with my doc. I need a physical anyway.

Okay. Lunch. Writing afternoon. Go!

My Summer in Film

Labor Day will close the blind on summer this weekend, so I'm going to squeak in with a little summer film commentary.

This was, overall, the summer of the mediocre film. I saw several films this summer: Malificent, X-Men: Days of Futre Past, Hercules (which mind you, was fun, but not brilliant), and Only Lovers Left Alive. What did I see in the cinema that might be worth your attention?

Chef: John Favreau directs a terrific cast and stars in this movie about a chef that has forgotten his passion and re-invents himself. It's an underdog movie and it's a father/son bonding movie, and I eagerly await for it to come out on disc so I can watch it over, often. With a cubano and a plate of plaintains.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The depth of this animated feature surprised me. There is cost and sacrifice in this film for many characters, and there is a good deal of growth and change. Also, many, many eye-catching dragons and just plain beautiful art.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wow. This is the Russian nesting doll of stories. A story within a story within a story within a story. We get to the Ralph Fiennes level, and man, this is one quirky, strange ride. It's like Roald Dahl meets Russian literature. Not for the easily offended, this darkly humorous film will delight those whose humor is a little offbeat.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Well. I didn't know what to expect here. What I expected was camp. What I got was a team effort from a bunch of scene stealers (if you can believe that), some amazing dramatic moments, and some skilled portrayals of some Marvel characters. Did you recognize Karen Gillan? I didn't in that first go 'round. You wasted her, Steven Moffat. Just sayin'. Go see it for the one-liners, the empathy, the heartfelt friendships, and a feeling unlike any other Marvel film. I'm gonna go with dramedy for a label.

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Of course, there were a couple of good videos I saw too, but you'll probably hear more about them in my end of year round up.

You guys have a great holiday.

The Writing Process and M.J. Locke

M.J. Locke, also known as Laura Mixon author of Up Against It, and also one of my teachers from Viable Paradise XIII, gives us some insight into her writing process. Thanks, Laura! (And I get the characters are real thing. I totally get that.)

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Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?

Laura: I’m a pantser. I get my core concept down, figure out the few major beats I know have to happen, then dive in and figure the rest out as I go.

The key thing, once I get started, is to commit to getting pages written on a regular basis. So I haul out my project management tools. For each book, I commit myself to daily or weekly time and page targets, and then I track the word count in a spreadsheet (so I can see my progress).

The level of commitment I can give to a book on a daily basis has varied drastically throughout my adulthood. Up until last fall I had a day job nearly all my adult life (30 years). Before I had kids, I would commit to one-to-two hours per night, three week nights, and at least three hours per day each day on the weekend. (As you can imagine, household chores were not a priority!) Once we had kids, and particularly when I was doing consulting work (which involved brutal hours and lots of travel) my writing slowed way down. An hour or two every week or so was all I could manage between 2000 and 2013. I admire people who can keep going with that kind of schedule, but I couldn’t.

Now that both girls are in college and Steve got a great Hollywood gig that replaced my day-job income, I’m writing full time again and have about half a novel finished (yay!).

As a full-time writer, I make myself a schedule that blocks out time for writing, as if I were in a day job. It both helps me stay on track and lets friends and family know when I’m available and when I’m not. My current weekly commitment is for about 24 hours a week of putting words on screen, and about 16 for blogging or research. Luuuuxury!

The key to success is to keep moving. Time can slide by without you even noticing. So I track it. It doesn’t matter if it’s crap and I have to throw it away again later; the trick is to hold myself accountable to put words down every day, or almost every day.

Tamago: Which part of writing--drafting, revising, critique from others--do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Laura: I love both drafting and revising: drafting because I LOVE making weird shit up and surprising myself; and revising because it feels to me like sculpting—coaxing the story out of the weeds, shaping the theme and character development and plot into something smooth and sleek. (At least, that’s the goal. :)

Getting critiques I am not crazy about, because I have a bad case of Writer Brain and am always convinced everything I write is crap, but it’s absolutely essential, so I always use beta readers before sending a manuscript out.

Tamago: In your most recent book, Up Against It, you have at least two major stories intertwined in one book. In what ways do you keep track of so many plot threads and interactions?

Laura: Ha! I tried to make UP AGAINST IT just Jane’s story, but there was so much else going on that I couldn’t plausibly draw Jane into that I finally gave up and went back and introduced several more viewpoint characters.

To keep track of my plot lines and technology and so forth, I use a couple of techniques. I white-boarded the characters’ stories in a big-picture way so I could see where the beats fell. For the world building, science and tech, I usually use an Excel workbook with calculations, drawings, and notes. For the characters and plot, I keep a notes file in Word, with character descriptions and sort of a running conversation with myself as I progressed, about what was going on, what a particular character was up to, what would happen next, and so on.

For upcoming books, I am curious to experiment with a wiki software, so the stuff I settle on is better organized. (Especially because I’m in the planning stages for several more books in WAVE, the series that UAI is the first of.) I’ll probably also keep the running notes and Excel files as those work well for me, and port stuff over that I think is useful.

But also, once those characters come to life in my head, they really keep track of a lot of stuff on their own. I know that sounds weird; they’re not REALLY real. But they feel real. I have to brace myself when I’m approaching the end of a book for the sense of loss I feel when I finish. There’s a part of me that—as much momentum as I usually have by then, as eager as I am to know how it’s all going to come out—doesn’t want to finish. Because that means I have to say good-bye to all these people I care about.

Continue reading

Other Things I Read This Summer

And now...those other books I read this summer.

Hild by Nicola Griffith. History might as well be an alien planet in Hild, the painstakingly researched latest offering from Nicola Griffith. Hild is an extrapolation of the events in the life of St. Hildegard and her relatives which pulls no punches in terms of looking at the brutality of history. Yet, Griffith is sensitive enough to paint Hild and her society with cultural respect, rather than noting how inferior they are to us. A good read, if a little thick.

The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Clarke. I noticed right away how similar the title of this work was to The Time Traveler's Wife, but I figured the similarity would end there. I was wrong. This felt a lot like that book. The plot is only similar in terms of romance, but in terms of tone, I felt like one book had heavily influenced the other. Did I like this book? Well, yes and no. It was strongly literary, but it was largely about usury sex and unrequited love at the same time. I have mixed feelings.

California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout. This is a dry, crusty book from Greg, which is new. There are moments of humor, but clearly this is meant to be serious, and I miss the moments of whimsey that have delighted me about Greg's writing so far. Still, the landscape of the book is well-painted, and there's plenty of social commentary and extrapolation about what we could become in the future. There's also lots of delicious, scary cannibalism, stylized magically for the reader. Would I recommend it? Depends on you. Strong stomach and urban fantasy your thing? Go ahead.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Let's see. This book has won the Nebula, the Clarke, and the Hugo. I wonder if you should read it? Like Hild, this book is thick. However, the way in which the world is envisioned, and the fact that it is perhaps the first successful gender neutral book might make this a VERY IMPORTANT BOOK for SF readers. It's experimental and the writing is strong.

Up Against It by M. J. Locke. If you combine Leckie's social sensitivity with Heinlein's juvenile adventure, you've got this book. Locke is an expert at integrating many cultures into one alien one, and the book is a forward moving hero's tale with a couple of excellent twists. It's a good book.

Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older. A series of supernatural tales from the perspective of the Latino undead and almost undead. It's fresh, funny, and breathtakingly beautiful at moments. Easily my pick of the season. You should read this one.

The Seat of Magic by J. Kathleen Cheney. I talked this one up when it first came out, and I want to mention it again. Cheney is combining history and the supernatural in a seamless way. Not one freakin' dirigible in sight. Excellent characters, high romance, and a genteel nature that make these books a smooth, enjoyable read.

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Next Up: Movies I have seen this summer.

Summer Reading: For the Kids

In my part of the universe, summer is over, although in your part of the universe, your kids may still be at home, and you might be wearing white until Labor Day.

Of course, you all know that I finished the first draft of The Poison of thy Flesh over the summer, but I did do some reading and I did watch some movies as well. (Smokin' in the Boy's Room Pause) Let me tell you about it!

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The winners this summer are the YA and MG books. I read a couple of series that you might like to take a look at, with or without your kids.

The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. I'll be honest with you. The first one isn't much to scream about, but I had already purchased the second. It's better. Then Carter just takes off on a rapid Concord ride through spy high school, and the books escalate in quality. I would almost say skip the first one. You will need the second one for background, and you won't be able to put the last 4 down. The premise? Girls go to a private school for spies, and do normal teenage things at the same time. It works. The books aren't perfect. I always feel our main villains are muddy and hard to pin down. But the adults and the kid mains interact, do spy well, and are just awesome overall. Six books. Read 'em.

The Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer. This middle grade series is perfect. The premise? Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes have a younger sister who runs away from them after her mother runs away from her to fight the forces of the misogyny of the Victorian period. Being a Holmes, it doesn't take her long to discover her analytical gifts and tendency toward daring do. The books are kids books, but the dangers in them are real. Springer's Victorian research is flawless. I can't see the seams of her extrapolations. These books deserve their reputation.

Ghoulish Song by Will Alexander. I read Goblin Secrets last summer, and Ghoulish Song is a story that is overlaid over the time frame of Goblin Secrets. Steeped in a careful study of folklore and written from a realistic childhood viewpoint, it's an excellent book that considers belonging, family, and life itself. Read both of these books.

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Now I did read some books for older readers as well, but that's another entry! Tomorrow, perhaps.

Scenes from an Office

A call from a friend last night. This happened.

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A professor and his student are walking to a writing seminar at Osborne Cottage. He mentions that her last journal entry was insightful and funny. She talks about how she really connected with Russell Baker. He makes a note to mention most of her essays for the rest of the semester.

***

A student decides that she is going to continue her MA at the same school where she received her BA. Her professor supports her in this decision.

***

The professor takes up art class. The student notes upon it. "I started, and it was really juvenile," he says. "Well, it looks like you're doing better now," she says.

***

The student discovers that teaching is her life. She describes how the sky opened and the sun shined down upon her. The professor says that makes sense to him.

***

A bunch of graduate students are grousing about how all the papers they read are the same papers. The professor says to be compassionate to the freshmen. Each paper for them is their first time.

***

The student takes her students to a local historical house, makes them write papers about it. Makes them read articles about the cosmic calendar and watch Cosmos. The professor notices her assignments, gives her encouragement to continue.

***

In the last spring of the student's career at Iowa State, the professor calls the student in.

Professor: What about this award? Charlie tells me you aren't nominating yourself for this award.
Student: Well, it's not what people do. Nominating themselves for awards.
Professor: Your classmates are nominating themselves. You're a good teacher.
Student: I can't do that. Victorian gentlemen just don't do that kind of thing.
Professor: I'll nominate you then. I'll talk to Charlie.

***

The professor makes sure the student gets a special award for her teaching. She is humbled.

***

Years later, the student sees the professor at an English conference. They catch up. She's teaching high school now. He was hoping she'd have got a job at a local community college she'd interviewed at. They sit in the back of the room and whisper, and she watches him at his own panel, and accept an award for his distinguished service in teaching composition during lunch. She knows that the professor has been a profound influence on her.

***

Just last week I said goodbye to Mr. Keating. The difference here is that even though Robin Williams is gone, I can still pull his gift, Mr. Keating, off my video shelf, and reconnect with the important gift he gave me. Dr. Dick Zbaracki is gone from my life, and I will never be able to reach through the pane of glass that separates my real life from my memories and share with him again.

God bless you and your family, Dr. Zbaracki. I will never forget everything you did for me.

Peaking

The roller coaster crests at the top of the hill!

***

We sent Phyllis to the emergency room, and she has a Urinary Tract Infection. In the elderly, that can be very disorienting and problematic. She's on antibiotics, and is really on the mend. While she is still experiencing (and will for the rest of her days have) short term memory loss, she is no longer hallucinating, having those very lucid dreams, or feeling as disoriented as she was.

Bryon goes back to work tomorrow, so he has gotten his oldest brother and his oldest niece checking in this week. As Bryon says, at least the relatives are taking direction well. Phyllis is being proactive and getting her exercise, as the doctor told her to. She's also trying to reach out and meet new people in her apartment building. That was a fun conversation.

Phyllis: I don't know if I'll like these people or not.
Bryon: Mom, it even counts when you socialize with people you don't like.

:)

So, I think we're going to peak and valley for a while. We regroup with our memory doctor in September, when either the Stumpster or I will take her for her appointment. So it goes.

***

Meanwhile, while that seems like quite a monolith, other things continue. We are hiring new teachers in ESL land because we have a record breaking number of students. I just started revising chapter 8 of the novel last night. I'm still keeping that weight I lost off. It's all good.

***

Speaking of those interviews, guess where I need to be? Last one today. Next up, I'll talk a little bit about summer readings. Barring any more drama.