Writing residency: excellent

I’m wrapping up my week-long writing residency, and I’m so, so happy with how it’s gone. I knocked out over 16000 words of a first draft, and I’ve filled in more of the outline for the rest of the novel than I think I’ve ever done before.
Since midsummer I’ve had the goal of having a complete first draft of SOMETHING by the end of 2018. This story idea came to me exactly two weeks ago, and I thought it was a little foolish to abandon my existing work in progress and aim to get all the planning plus an entire usable first draft done in just over 2 months… but I desperately wanted to write this story. And one of my projects this year is letting my gut-level desires run the show a little more, giving myself permission to follow them even if I can’t make the case that it’s the smartest choice, even if I don’t know where it’s going to go. So, with a little encouragement from Lane, I went for it. And now it looks like I’m going to pull it off. And I’m STOKED.
I won’t be sharing snippets of the novel here until it’s in a much more advanced stage of editing, but here’s a teaser: if you enjoy both Brother Cadfael and Kushiel’s Dart, you’ll probably be into it.

Murder mysteries: a loose outline

I’m writing from a farm in Tennessee right now, a little less than halfway through a week-long writing retreat. It. Is. Great. It’s amazing how much writing I can get done when it’s my only job.

The story I’m working on is essentially a murder mystery in the clothes of a fantasy novel (which, minus the “murder”, is also true of most Harry Potter books, in case you didn’t know.) Mystery is probably the genre I read the most, and I’ve always known I was going to write one someday — but the idea of plotting one was daunting.

There are a lot of plot outline templates for novels, which give you a layout of what beats to hit when, which is the kind of thing that’s hugely useful to me. But I needed something specifically for mystery, and something that could be adapted to a very different setting than the classic real-world investigative whodunnit. I started working out my own theories, and halfway through doing that I found this Two-Body Plot breakdown by John P. Murphy.

Below, I’ve basically taken the two-body plot as described by Murphy, and thrown in my own take at a couple of points. I think it’s a pretty good act framework for a mystery, and is certainly what I’ll be using for my first stab at outlining.

Act 1: the characters are introduced: the eventual suspects, killer, and victim, and sometimes also the detective. Conflicts and tensions that hint at the murder motive, as well as some red-herring motives, are presented. If the detective has personal issues to work out in this story, they come up here too. The reader should be getting invested in either the detective’s situation, some of the characters’ conflicts, or just in trying to guess who’s going to be killed and why (I always do this if I know I’m reading/watching a murder mystery — if your readers aren’t likely to know that, though, you need to build tension in one of the other ways.)

Act 1 ends on the discovery of the initial victim, which pivots us into the investigation.

Act 2: Early-stage investigation. The detective and reader are scoping out the terrain of suspects, motives, and clues. During this act we should be rapidly piling up questions in addition to the main “whodunnit” question. Why did Sally go visit Jane in the middle of the night? Who moved the teakettle from its usual place? How could someone have gotten to the fifth floor of the building? What are suspects X, Y, and Z hiding?

Act 2 ends on the discovery of something that dramatically alters the tone of the investigation. In the original essay it’s another body, but I think a major reveal (“Jane is secretly Sally’s mother, and Sally had no idea!”) can serve the same role. Even if it’s not a corpse, it should represent some kind of failure or disaster for the detective: their main working theory disproven, the person they love suddenly implicated, something like that.

Act 3: Late-stage investigation. The stakes are raised by the Act 2 corpse/reveal; the detective is more emotionally invested and driven. Where in act 2 we raised more questions than answers, here we should be getting answers in pretty quick succession — but answers that create additional questions, or tension or danger. Often there’s something in place to put time pressure on the solving: fear that the killer will strike again, a suspect the detective who’s in growing danger of being arrested although the detective believes they’re innocent, the risk of the detective being taken off the case. In general things are moving much more quickly, and with much more tension, than in act 2.

Act 3 ends with the big reveal. The reveal scene needs to be very tense, dramatic, and exciting, even though ultimately the reveal can be expressed in three words: “X did it.” There are two time-honored ways of doing this. You can create some action around the scene: a chase, a third murder attempt narrowly averted, a life-threatening trap the detective walks into. Or you can assemble all the suspects in a room and let the tension come from everybody’s suspicion of each other, and the slow unpeeling of secrets by the detective.

In the denoument (Act 4 in the original scheme) you answer any unanswered questions, resolve the relationships of the remaining characters, and sort out whatever personal consequences the detective faced. Mystery readers want to walk away with everything tucked neatly to bed, with the possible exception of some personal arc for the detective that will carry over into the next book.

Writing bootcamp

I always like to have a plan; if I’ve figured out where I want to go, I want to plot out each step of the path before I set out. What I’m slowly learning, though, is that this doesn’t allow for flexibility in myself, or responsiveness to surprises that the world might hand me. (I tend to assume that surprises the world hands me are always going to be terrible — I’m working on shifting that assumption.) I’m also learning that pretty great things can happen when I move generally toward things that I want, even if I don’t have a clear plan forward, even if the landscape starts shifting as I move.

For example: a couple of years ago I took advantage of a NaNoWriMo promotion to sign up for Novlr, a writing platform, and through that I learned about Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Writing Boot Camp, a free podcast-based writing course. And that, for the last 4 weeks, has been knocking down so many of the blockades that have gone up around my creative, fiction-generating brain over the years. When I was a kid and a teenager, I was constantly having story ideas, constantly drawing up characters and writing scenes and plotting out novels, and I had begun to fear that that was just lost to me in adulthood. I’m so, so happy to discover that it’s not.

I’m not going to post many of the excerpts I generate through this, and in fact might not do any at all besides this one. They’re all done in ten minutes, and so there’s no polishing and I don’t want “someone else might read this” to get in the way of my being able to put down whatever terrible words come out. But this one was a fun exercise — this week we are writing the same scene, a memory, with different stylistic constraints. See if you can tell what the rule is for this:

The wind was strong, and it pushed the waves high and rough. Mom was with the kids, so Dan and I could get out to play and swim in the sea. We ran down the wood planks to the shore, and stood and watched in awe at the fierce waves and loud wind. Grey sand, grey sky, and slate grey sea spread out in front of us.

We ran down the beach and plunged in the surf. The wind was so cold that the sea felt warm. Up, the waves rose, us with them, high and low, some from the north and some from the south, crossed swells on all sides. The wind tore at my hair. We could have been killed, if a wave too strong had pulled us down, or out to sea, but we swum strong and laughed and rode the waves.


Anyway, it’s been really fun. And this weekend I woke up with an idea that I’m so excited about, and dying to start working on. I promised myself a full first draft of something by the end of calendar year 2018, and I think this is gonna be it.

Growth shoots

[I’m going through old drafts, and finding lots of posts that I quite like but never quite finished and published. Some, I’m going to put the final touches to and then publish. Some, like this one, I’ll just publish as they stand.]

I often don’t do New Year’s resolutions. What happens instead is, as spring comes around and my spirit starts getting into gear for action and productivity, I notice patterns. Or more often, breaks in patterns. I suddenly do something I wouldn’t have done a year ago. I respond in a way I wouldn’t have responded. I notice my thoughts trending… differently.

And when I see this shift in an old pattern, I think, “Huh. Yes, that works. I like where that trend will take me.” And then I make it into a resolution, of sorts. I start to encourage that pattern and remind myself to do it in other relevant situations.

I learned a long time ago that forcing myself into the mold of the person I thought I should be doesn’t work. I can usually do it, because my willpower is strong, but it disconnects me from myself. Instead of genuine growth and change I learn to put on the costume and mannerisms of the person I’m trying to be, but it’s never quite right. It never filters down to my instinctive thoughts and feelings, and so I lose touch with them while the outward show becomes more and more work to keep up. And sometimes it turns out I was wrong about the direction I should be changing in in the first place.

So I’ve been taking this different approach, which feels more like noticing growth, and feeding it. It’s like I’m a plant putting out new shoots, and after a bit of reflection I decide that yes, this is a branch worth growing, so I send energy to it.

What I’ve learned is that if I reflect on the triumphs and failures of the recent past (which I can’t not do) and keep people around me who hold me up and call out the best in me, growth happens naturally. I don’t have to force it or organize it. I can just notice and encourage it.

This year so far I have noticed two little shoots of growth, that I am pleased by and want to encourage.

1 – Reach after my desires. I have always felt like I needed to wait for good things to come to me, especially big things like lovers and friends and jobs. I have felt like if something isn’t happening, then it’s not for me. I’ve often taken an excessively stoic approach, insisting (to myself most of all) that I’m fine with whatever comes, because I don’t feel that I can affect the big things in my life.

Now suddenly I’ve started to imagine that I could think about what I really want, what would make me the happiest — and then reach for it. Actually put myself forward and take steps toward making it happen. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t… if it doesn’t, that could mean many things but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have tried. That I was somehow foolish or out of line for even asking.

I realize this is something many people have done their whole lives, but to me it feels foreign and a little bit like magic. I’m still stunned with wonder that a big wish I made –and actively pursued — a few weeks ago came true. Like, wait, you mean I’m allowed to ask for what I want, and not only will I not be stricken down for presumption, but sometimes it will even happen? (There are lots of other reasons I’m stunned with wonder. More about that later, maybe.)

It’s a big development and it’s giving me Notions about what kind of future might be possible for me in a world where I’m allowed to actually protag in my own life.

2 – Don’t apologize when I’m not responsible. This comic was kind of a lightning bolt for me, of the terrific kind that joins and illuminates several unconnected thoughts. I struggle to respond to other people’s “I’m sorry I’m such a burden” type statements (because most of the time, I don’t feel that way, so I have to awkwardly tend to their feelings of being burdensome while trying to convey that I don’t see them that way.)

And I also get so, so tired of apologizing for the same things in myself over and over (usually “sorry I’m late” and “sorry I left the dishes undone” and such things.) It feels hollow to say sorry about something I know, from long experience, is going to change slowly if at all, but I don’t just want to let the thing pass without acknowledgement either. So. Thank you. Thank you for being patient. Thank you for listening. Thank you for putting up with a messier house than you would prefer. Thank you for valuing me enough to not mind the ways in which I’m imperfect.

(In case it’s not clear, “thank you” would be a pretty crappy response if the person I’m talking to was expressing their upset at my lateness or messiness. I’m talking about cases where I’m apologizing compulsively and habitually without the other person actually expressing unhappiness… as the cartoon says, apologizing for existing.)


On anger, righteous and personal

Sometime I will write about righteousness more broadly, how deeply suspicious I am of righteousness after growing up in conservative Christianity, how troubled I am when I see its toxic aspects reflected in people I tend to agree with today. But it’s a big topic that I don’t feel ready to tackle today, so I want to look instead at the narrower subject of righteous anger.

Anger in general comes from a violation, a boundary crossing. It is a strike force against someone who did something they had no right to do. It is the body’s way of fiercely affirming that our boundaries must be guarded, that we deserve to receive good and not harm from people who come near us.

Some of us have been taught all our lives to suppress anger. We are taught to let our boundaries be invaded, to cede territory rather than make the invader unhappy or uncomfortable. We are taught to “forgive” before we’ve ever really claimed our hurt — in other words, we are taught that our hurts don’t matter and our boundaries don’t deserve defending. Learning to value and protect ourselves and learning how to be angry go hand in hand.

In my experience, anger is a two-pronged spear. One prong is “I have been hurt,” and the other is “a wrong has been done.” I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anger that doesn’t contain at least a little of both of these, although the balance may swing hard in one direction or another. Even when the wrong is done to a stranger far distant — say, a family seeking asylum that’s been torn apart by a white supremacist government — I feel some direct, personal pain, because I am an empathetic person and because families matter to me. And even when the wrong done is very personal and probably entirely defensible — say, an ex taking a new partner to our favorite restaurant — there is a little piece of me that feels like, “that shouldn’t have happened, it’s not right.”

Righteous anger is the prong that says “a wrong has been done here.” For those of us who are taught that anger on our own behalf is not allowed, righteous anger is a more permissible alternative. You can’t defend your own boundaries or claim your own hurt, but you are allowed to be angry if an objective wrong has been done. You have to make sure you focus on the objective wrong, though, not on the hurt. Your hurts still don’t matter.

Righteous anger is vital and necessary. I don’t think social change could happen without it.  But I have also learned to be deeply suspicious of it, in myself and in other people, and the more close and personal a situation is, the more suspicious I am. Too often, righteous anger is a way to avoid tending to our personal hurts, or to maintain a sense of control over a narrative, or to distance ourselves from the possibility that we also have done wrong.

I’ll talk about the last two things later, since they’re both part of the way righteous anger — and righteousness in general — can be a power move. I want to spend more time now on the way that overdwelling on the “righteous” part of anger gets in the way of caring for our own hurts.

I already said that learning how to value and protect ourselves and learning to be angry go hand in hand. Specifically, learning to be angry on our own behalf is a part of the process. I can rage and rage that a wrong has been done, but until I voice to myself, “I have been hurt, and I am not okay with that,” I’m not going a step further toward valuing and protecting myself.

Invoking grand principles feels so much safer than suggesting that my own feelings and pain matter. If I say, “This thing was wrong!” they’re not going to respond with “Why should I care?” — and if they do, they’re clearly the asshole. If, on the other hand, I say “This thing hurt me!” then the possibility of “Why should I care?” becomes terrifyingly vivid. I’ve had plenty of people in my life hurt me and not care, so it’s not irrational of me to imagine that voicing my hurt will lead to nothing but dismissal, or worse.

Whether they care isn’t actually the point, though. It matters, and it especially matters if I’m deciding whether to let someone be close to me, but it isn’t the point. The point is that I care. It matters to me that I was hurt. That’s why I’m angry. That’s why I need my anger — to really feel that it matters. I can’t do that by offloading my hurt onto an abstract notion of justice. I have to keep it right there in my chest, so that my anger is doing what it’s meant to do — defending me.


I’m writing this piece of sheer frivolity only because I can’t get it out of my head. It should be entertaining for the few of you who are into both Hamilton and the Enneagram personality typing system. For everyone else, feel free to move along.

I’m a late adopter, and it wasn’t until this summer that I listened to Hamilton all the way through. Obviously I loved it, I’ve mentioned in in two out of three blog posts so far. Also this summer, I’ve gotten back into the Enneagram, thanks in large part to Hannah Pasch’s excellent Millenneagram podcast and twitter goodness. I’ve found a lot of personality typing systems helpful at different times in my life, but the Enneagram has consistently given me the most in terms of insight and steering my personal growth.

Anyway, those two things ended up occupying a lot of mental bandwidth for the span of a couple weeks, and that resulted in the following: a Hamilton song for each Enneagram number. Some of them came easily, some I needed an assist on, and one of them just finally came to me this morning after Lane and I had both given up. They’re not all perfect fits, but I’m pleased with the list anyway.

Note that this is about the song, not the characters. We can discuss which characters seem like which type (no really, we can — hit me up day or night to talk about it), but this is about the feelings, needs, strengths, and weaknesses expressed in each song.

Okay, so we’re doing this.

1 – Non-Stop

There’s a lot of good One stuff in the show, but this one takes it by a landslide.

I practiced the law, I practic’ly perfected it
I’ve seen injustice in the world and I’ve corrected it
Now for a strong central democracy
If not, then I’ll be Socrates

2 – You’ll Be Back

A rare villain spot for the Twos! Come on though, you all need a shirt that says “I will send a fully-armed battalion to remind you of my love.”

3 – My Shot

Another gimme despite there being several possible options. Threes get a bad rap a lot, so it pleases me that they get one of the standout numbers in this exercise.

I’m past patiently waitin’ I’m passionately mashin’ every expectation
Every action’s an act of creation

4 – Burn

I needed Lane’s help on this one, I had actually gone for the adjacent Hurricane but wasn’t happy with it. He’s a Four and he immediately said, “Nope, it’s Burn.”

I’m erasing myself from the narrative
Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted
When you broke her heart

5 – Satisfied

This was the hardest one to call. At first I said Farmer Refuted, just because it’s so clever, but Lane pointed out that the whole show is dazzlingly clever and that’s not a good enough reason. Satisfied didn’t occur to either of us because it’s about love and we don’t usually go there first when thinking of 5s. But “I fell hard for a rare intellectual peer, immediately thought through all the reasons I shouldn’t pursue him, walked away, never gonna tell a soul about it” is an awfully 5 love story. So here you go.

So this is what it feels like to match wits
With someone at your level! What the hell is the catch?

6 – Right Hand Man

Another easy call.

You need all the help you can get
I have some friends. Laurens, Mulligan
Marquis de Lafayette, okay, what else?

7 – The Schuyler Sisters

I needed Lane’s help for this one too — I half-heartedly nominated The Story of Tonight, but this one’s better.

History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be
In the greatest city in the world!

8 – Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)

I love me a good triumphal 8 number (see also Henry V and Holst’s Jupiter). No single quote covers it: it’s just everybody fighting at their best, and winning.

We gotta go, gotta get the job done
Gotta start a new nation, gotta meet my son!

9 – Wait For It

Okay, there’s a solid argument to be made here for That Would Be Enough. It’s probably even the right pick. But I’m an angsty 9 and Wait For It speaks to me more than any other number in the show. I’m not saying I throw back my head and belt “I am the one thing in life I can controooooool!” every time it comes on, but — actually yeah, I am saying that, that’s exactly what I do.

I’m not falling behind or running late
I’m not standing still
I am lying in wait
Disagree with any of my picks? Fight me in the comments!

Strong heart

Grief keeps coming for me this year. Over and over I’ve been hit with loss: different kinds, different reasons, all painful.

Also this year, I realized that I needed to learn to be fully present with my feelings or die. So when grief hits me, instead of evading it or crushing it down, I have been trying hard to sit with it, to let it move through me at its own pace. This takes discipline. I have a dozen strategies for diverting grief or stopping its flow, and it’s hard not to activate them when my heart feels like it’s being gripped in a vise and I can only breathe in little gasps that feel like stabs.

One thing I am learning is that my heart is strong. While I sit there gasping, thinking “I am actually not sure I can bear this,” my heart is steadily bearing it. It holds the pain and it endures. As I sit here now, on a peaceful day, that same center of feeling in my chest is at rest, undamaged. It holds pain like a sponge holds water, wringing out sobs and tears when it gets too full, and then absorbing more until there’s no more to soak up. And then it quietly returns to its original state.

I always think that I need to protect my body, to avoid pain. I think that pain is the same thing as damage, and try to shield my body even from feeling emotional pain. But this summer I have begun asking my body what she needs from me, and when I have asked in the grips of grief, the answer is never, “Save me from this.” It is, “Be with me through this.” Don’t run away. Don’t suppress.

When I push the grief away, I just move it to somewhere else in my body, a place that isn’t meant to absorb and release it.

And because there’s no way to evade a valid pain without lying, when I push the grief away I spin lies. I lie about what I really want, or about what the future will hold, or about the reality of the past. It becomes harder and harder to know and feel my actual needs and realities, and harder to connect to other people. Every attempt at closeness, every decision I make for my life, has to navigate around the brittle structure of illusions and evasions I’ve built to protect myself from pain.

I’m realizing slowly that none of this is necessary. I am very new to this, and I don’t know if there are limits or actual breaking conditions, but for now I am trying to trust that my heart is strong. It knows how to do this work of holding pain. Instead of tying myself in knots to protect it, I can sit and feel it, and thank it for its work.