The White Rabbit is my spirit animal

At some point early on in the process of writing Innogen and the Hungry Half, I made an attempt at devising an ideal and reasonable production schedule, one that would more or less keep my usual stressors at bay. It’s so sensible, I’m amazed it came to me at all. The schedule looks like this:

Tuesday: Having published a chapter at 9 a.m., I may spend the day alerting readers of the update and taking notes to outline the next chapter.

Tuesday evening, Wednesday and Thursday: Write 1,000 words each day for a first draft. Each chapter tends to be about 3200 words, more or less. During this time I also bother Excellent Enabler with sections as they come, and she tells me what she likes and what could use improving.

Friday: After polishing the first pass, I then send the draft to First Beta, who gives incredibly helpful notes about structure, characterization, plot holes and other big picture issues.

Saturday: I write that week’s chapter preview, which I then schedule to post automatically sometime Sunday morning.

Saturday night or Sunday morning: I edit according to First Beta’s notes, and send the revised draft to Second Beta, who tackles word-by-word issues, smoothing out unclear passages, typos and other messy writing bits.

Monday evening: I edit the chapter with Second Beta’s notes, and schedule the post to go up the next morning. Then I kick back and congratulate myself for managing my time and resources so well.

Sadly, this has yet to actually happen: the real process involves a lot more procrastinating, obsessive outlining, endless and obscure note-taking and scrambling to make deadlines. Things are always finished much closer to posting than is comfortable. Weirdly, though, I like it, and miraculously, so do my friends, for which I am very, very grateful. And each week is an opportunity to get better! This entry is dedicated to anyone who has ever received a frantic last-minute email from me promising that this is the last time this will happen.

Last time, Imogen and Posthumus had a night on the town that anyone would want to sleep off somewhere private. Too bad that’s never an option when you’re the daughter of the king. What’s waiting for them on the other side of the alarm clock? Check back Tuesday to find out — for now, some hints and clues!

One song

“The White Queen Sleeps/The White Palace,” Iain Ballamy, Mirrormask

Do yourself a favor and see this movie if you can; it’s not actually as dated as this trailer makes it look. Imogen is going to wake up in a world that’s askew. This track unnerves me every time I hear it; it’s just off and just eerie enough.

Two links

Tattoos fascinate me, especially when they pop up in seemingly unlikely settings. A Brief History of Tattooed Ladies also piqued my interest.

I’m also not going to deny that there’s any of Hedy Lamarr in Rigantona; it’s too neat a fit.

Three lines

I see the corner of his mouth quirk, but his shoulders are tight. “It came out, though, that I changed when I was eight. He just thought I was living up to my potential.”

All right, we’re off to the races now. Come back on Tuesday to see how it falls together! As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.

Older than I’ve ever been

Question mark on train wheel

One of my very dearest friends is in Chicago for a quarter, doing wonderful and enviable things at our alma mater. We met up yesterday and instantly started rambling about all the writing projects we have in the air. Being able to talk about story and craft and influences and all the tricksy bits of writing is one of the many reasons I’m so deeply happy she’s here. I began telling her about the series (!!) I want to start (“You want to write not-urban urban fantasy!”), and she told me all about her plans to submit short fiction to paying markets.

“Where does one find out about that?” I asked. “Because all these people I know find out about all these neat anthologies, and I can’t ever seem to keep on top of it!”

“Duotrope,” she said, and I said, “Ooooooh.”

I bookmarked Duotrope once upon a time, but it was buried in a browser I hardly use anymore, and being concerned with other stages of my writing career, I forgot about it. Now, of course, I’m getting that feeling: this is the year. This is when I’m going to buck up and start submitting. This is when I’m going to see my name in print, so to speak. I’ve got all sorts of plans and ideas, and I feel terrifically energized, especially now that Innogen and the Hungry Half is approaching the “one-third of the story” mark, which I honestly kind of never thought would happen. (New chapter this Tuesday, by the way! My computer seems to not be dying yet, thank goodness, and if it does, I’ve wised up and have my external hard drive to save me.)

At the beginnings and ends of calendar years, we often wind up taking stock and making plans. I’m generally less good at the latter, but I found my most recent bout of the former yielded some pretty good results. As it happens, today is the one-year anniversary of my first post to Magpie & Whale. It’s basically a filler entry–it even retains the “Hello world!” subject line–but it’s amazing how far this site has come since then.

We’re also nearing my half-birthday (five more days!), and being 27 and a half gives me a good deal of thoughts. This past birthday, I started to feel like it was time to get my life together in a more directed way. About a year ago, I made up a list of things I wanted to do before I was 50 (see July 10, 2034); I’m actually able to cross some of those off today, to my great delight. I know what I want to do for graduate study, and I know where I want my career to take me, which is farther along than I’ve ever been before. (I’ve also got some big trips and excursions planned: stay tuned for the fun times as well!)

I’m so proud of the work of the past year, and particularly of the past several months. Thank you, all of you, who have read and commented on and shared this project. Thank you to my wonderful friends, who have made this conversation so quality and so interesting. Thank you to my family, who stays interested and cheers me on. I think 2012 is going to be a good one. Much love, and let’s make it come true.

Bartlet for America and other words to live by

Many of us, I think, have good reason to be mad at Aaron Sorkin. His heroes elevate the professional life to classical heights, and I suspect that if I let myself, I could be quite bitter that the workplace is rarely the scene of an impassioned plea for idealism in action, or even a good pedeconference. It’s not that I feel lied to, because we’ve always known that The West Wing and Studio 60 and Sports Night were fairy tales, but now I have this model for how I’d love to live my professional life, and I don’t know where it exists.

Don’t get me wrong: my colleagues at my day job are passionate, hardworking, good people. I work at a nonprofit, and I’m very proud of my organization. Oddly enough, though, each day doesn’t unfold like a 45-minute play. There is very little patter, and even less narrative symmetry.

I’m taking the GRE tomorrow, which is why there’s no new chapter of Innogen and the Hungry Half today. As a coping mechanism, as those of you who follow me on Twitter have seen, I accidentally wound up watching the second half of Season 1 of The West Wing, and then the first two episodes of the second season. It’s been a while since I’ve spent time with the Bartlet White House, but one thing becomes apparent very quickly on a rewatch: I am still deeply in love with every one of these characters. It is an ensemble show in the truest sense; even the incidental characters are rich, and all of them mean something to each other. Sorkin’s writing and world-building are staggering, and the man who’s capable of intensely funny episodes (need I say more than “secret plan to fight inflation”?) is also responsible for   some of the most powerful and moving television ever aired (“Noël,” Season 2’s Christmas episode, is basically flawless).

There’s a reason we love them all, C.J. and Toby and Sam and Josh and the rest. The commitment these characters display, to their work, to their colleagues, to their principles, is immensely appealing—and this is one of many reasons why it’s a fairy tale, of course. Those manifestations that are out there in the real world aren’t marked by speeches or great banter: they’re subtler. That’s fine. But digging deeper, we find that one feature binding the players of the Bartlet Administration is a commitment to professionalism, to being able to take care of things, to fix them. “Don’t worry about it” is a constant refrain on The West Wing.

I remember, somewhere around middle school, I started having conversation with my parents about how they chose their jobs and how they became an English professor and a psychologist. My mom’s answer has always stuck with me: she wanted an identity as a professional, and I think I’ve absorbed that more deeply than I realized. I want, more than anything, to be a professional writer. It’s been the only consistent occupation I’ve ever wanted, and I’ve been writing stories since I was 4. Magpie & Whale is an effort toward that: with a long interruption in the middle of the year (for family health reasons), I’ve tried to hold myself to a regular posting schedule. I like the challenge of a deadline, and of producing good work quickly. One of the reasons I’m doing Innogen weekly is to push myself out of my comfort zone.

For five weeks, the story was produced more or less on schedule. However, it coincided with an immensely stressful month that I couldn’t have predicted, and while I tried to roll with the punches, some things have to be sacrificed, and given that my other balls in the air were paid work, graduate school prep, family commitments and personal issues, Innogen was what took the hit. (That was three entirely separate metaphors in one sentence—apologies!) I’ve been beating myself up about this. If I’m going to be a professional, I should be able to produce, I should be able to manage my time so that somehow I can put together work that makes me proud. That isn’t what happened, though—I wasn’t proud of any of the starts I made at Chapter 6, and I want this story to be good too badly to sacrifice quality for regularity.

So, all of this is to say that I’m sorry Innogen has fallen off the grid these past few weeks. Once I’m done with the GRE tomorrow, that will be off my back, and I hope to be able to resume normal life/posting. I’m very excited about where the story is going, and I so appreciate those who’ve stuck with me. It means more than I can say that people are interested in this. Thank you.

In the meantime, I have less than 24 hours until I take what I hope is the last standardized test of my life. There are still a few fistfuls of practice sets to do, and—dammit, Sorkin—more episodes of The West Wing to anticipate as a reward.

The Tiger’s Wife: What I wanted and what I got

Note: Innogen and the Hungry Half is still on hiatus, but should resume normal posting next week. Until then, a throwback to the original purpose of Magpie & Whale: the personal essay!

As I was reading The Tiger’s Wife this month, I spent a lot of time being angry at Téa Obreht for being a year younger than me. Her author portrait glows. She’s poised, talented, wise, articulate—and an angelic blonde with wide, liquid eyes. Born in 1985! What right does she have to be so accomplished, before me?

I recognize this jealousy. I felt it every time I was confronted with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, which I refused to read for years, the principle being that wunderkinder are a pain in the ass. Of course, once I did read it, I was staggered by how good it was, and determined to push myself more, to experiment with form and style and structure, to break out of linear storytelling, to embrace the messiness of human emotions more fully. The Tiger’s Wife has the luck to come after my encounter with Everything Is Illuminated, so my resolve is not quite so fiery, but it’s absolutely a magnificent book that makes me want to try harder, farther and wider.

This isn’t going to be a book review so much as a book reaction. I will say that The Tiger’s Wife is intricate, interconnected, restrained, vivid, fully felt and richly realized, and that it’s well worth your time. (Also: that certain repetitions began to bore me after a point; certain choices felt unnecessary and dulled the consequences that resulted; the end, to me, did not match the rest of the story in scope or depth or power, but your mileage may vary.) I am very much excited to see Téa Obreht continue to write: she should have a long, fruitful and amazing career, and despite her age (fie!), I wish her very, very well.

Tangled up with this fixation on Obreht’s age is a question I keep asking myself: What could I write, if I was to try something like this? Because The Tiger’s Wife is very much the product of growing up in and with the Balkans. It deals with wars, survivors, myths, superstitions, borders, local lore, traditions, families, religion and death, all in a context that I simply haven’t experienced. I grew up a faculty brat in a university town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I had no relatives in the area—our family is quite far-flung, though I grew up constantly surrounded by stories. Still, the things that give my life texture are different than Obreht’s, and it’s easy to feel somewhat shy about them, when, in comparison, they seem so American, and of a certain strain that’s not short of representation.

Of course, there’s nothing to be done about where we both were born and have lived our lives. And The Tiger’s Wife isn’t a book I would have written for reasons other than biographical ones. Though it contains a strain of magical realism, I found myself frustrated by how limited that aspect of the story was. It flirts with the fantastic, but at moments, I wished—much as she often frustrates me—for Cat Valente to take over the story. In her hands, the stories and the act of telling the stories would have taken on a life and hue of their own, living and breathing as more than cultural illustrations, things people do. As they emerged, the stories would have warped the story itself. That wasn’t their purpose with The Tiger’s Wife; in ways, it was explicitly the opposite.

Which led me to another question: What moves people to write literary fiction? This isn’t entirely facetious, and it’s not just because I have no use for Jonathan Franzen. I don’t understand the appeal of a lot of contemporary literary fiction. Historical fiction, Great Books/“classics,” genre fiction (even of the non-magical variety, like mysteries or satire)—I love it! But straight treatments of human topics somehow don’t get me where I live like the stranger takes do, and I’m not sold on the idea that the plot of a “literary” novel inherently lives beneath the surface, requiring more work from the reader. Still, the point remains that given the choice, I would probably steer away from creating a book that’s so devoted to realism. The times I’ve tried to root my fiction in a non-magical universe, I’ve at least had a world from the past to fill in for other kinds of strangeness.

With Obreht’s novel, I craved a stranger story than the one I got. All my favorite stories have some unnatural or supernatural element to them. Someone recently asked me my opinion on Shakespeare’s history plays; I don’t particularly have an opinion on them, though give me Macbeth or The Tempest or King Lear and I am off to the races. There is something about the literalizing of the imagination that engages me without qualifications (see Esther by genre for more on that). This isn’t to say there’s nothing worthy in a “literary” work; I’ve just realized more and more that other things speak more closely to my heart.

In the end, all that matters about the year Téa Obreht was born is that’s where her arc as someone who shares words—her words, her particular take on the world—begins. This book spoke to me, and I’m glad I found it. Storytelling is a gift economy at heart. I’ve learned a lot from reading The Tiger’s Wife, and I hope that will work its way into Innogen and the Hungry Half sooner rather than later.

And if I write that deeply rooted story about where I come from, somewhere down the line, it will be stronger for hearing other voices. It will be mine. And it will have unreal things in it.

Picture not representative of my weekend

I write this from the futon at a friend’s place in another state. Another friend drove us down here, and we’ve been marveling at how gorgeous her apartment is and rending our hair at the low, low rent. It’s been a great opportunity to get out of Chicago and hang out with people I adore, but unfortunately work, like a Prohibition-era G-man chasing down bootleggers, will always cross state lines and stay on my tail. I’m pleased to report that I’ve made my way through all the chapters of my Kaplan GRE test prep workbook, and that high school math is finally fun for me. However, it did require that my two friends leave me at the apartment for a few hours yesterday. Not exactly the mini-vacation it could have been, but I know I won’t go into full-on panic mode later.

All this prioritizing and pacing of competing and equally pressing needs feels very like college again. In theory, I’m older and wiser now, and not given to all-nighter weekends. That’s borne out less than I would like, but I have been congratulating myself a little for keeping Innogen on schedule for a whole month. That’s certainly an improvement over college-aged Esther, and I hope it bodes well for throwing myself back into school again.

Last week, Imogen took a huge risk and revealed the full extent of her suspicions about her nightmares. The risk seems to have isolated her, though — and as a woman of politics, she can’t let her emotional life interfere with teasing out this undercurrent of rebellion against Rome in Britain. Not being able to talk to Posthumus has thrown her off-kilter, though, and one or the other needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

Which will it be, and how? Tune in Tuesday to see it for yourself. For now, some preview material!

One song

“Sea Lion” by Sage Francis [lyrics]

I was introduced to this song by an incredible fan video about Dean Winchester and his mother, characters from the CW series Supernatural. I love the restlessness of the track, and the conflict. Sage Francis is just blisteringly intelligent too, and there’s a vividness about his music that really works for me. In certain ways (not all of them obvious yet, but that’s on me), “Sea Lion” could speak for Imogen or Posthumus right now; certainly “a healthy distrust” is good advice for them both.

Two links
I need to give a well-deserved shout-out to Cambridge University, alma mater of my future husband and also home of the incredibly useful Celtic Personal Names of Roman Britain. Seriously: this thing is the best of the best, as far as this story is concerned.

Sorry, this is a short one this week, since at this point, large swathes of Chapter 5 still need to be written.

Three lines

“Doctor, where is Posthumus now?”

He frowns, and makes an aimless gesture toward the palace. “She was on her way to inspect the walls, and he wanted to go along. Physics,” he adds, with a shrug.

Curious? Given my schedule, so am I! Swing back on Tuesday to see where it all leads. As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.

GRE is to career planning as escalation is to…

If a protagonist has only one problem to sort through, there isn’t much of a plot. It’s by layering demands on our heroine that a story becomes interesting, especially if they’re in competition with each other. Apparently I am taking this formula to heart, because in addition to work, in addition to this project and in addition to trying not to become a hermit who can’t cook for herself, this week I accidentally signed up for the GRE.

“Accidentally” is a strong word, but it’s nearly accurate. One minute I was reading about application deadlines, the next I was giving my credit card to ETS. To put that in context, I’ve been resisting grad school since about 2005. I’ve always known I wanted to go, but I don’t want to be in academia, and I knew I couldn’t justify more school (and more debt) unless I was certain the degree would steer me toward a real career. Thanks to a recent graduate school fair organized by Idealist.org, I think I’ve finally found it — or rather, I’ve now got the name for the thing I’ve wanted to do all along. Which is great — a huge relief! I finally have a path, a plan, a set of options to pursue.

I also now have the GRE to study for, applications to compile, essays to compose, visits to arrange, decisions to make. This on top of work, friends, family, freelancing and Innogen. It was the right decision, but my timing is hilarious. Onward!

Last week Imogen got quite the suckerpunch, meeting Cloten, who looks just like her best friend and acts nothing like him. Let’s see how she’s going to deal with that!

One song

“Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” by Nancy Sinatra [lyrics]

Hey, remember that time when your certainty in the most solid thing in your life got yanked out from under you? Man, that was rough. Poor Imogen. Now she has to spend an entire dinner party with it.

Two links
I’ve mentioned before that most of my knowledge about the Roman Empire comes from the Asterix comics, which means my general idea of what food in Ancient Rome looks like is something close to this:

From Asterix in Helvetia

Luckily there are scholars who disabuse us of hilarious, parodic simplifications, and who publish cookbooks of actual recipes from imperial Rome! I’ll never be embarrassed by my ignorance of how to properly cook an ostrich again. By Toutatis, I’m relieved.

The second link is mainly visual, and explains why I’m really writing Innogen.

Three lines

“Even Argus wasn’t invincible when Mercury came to play him to sleep.”

Rigantona smiles. “The Romans have gods, stories and much else, Lady Imogen, but I assure you, they do not have this.”

That’s it for now. Swing back Tuesday to see how it all comes together! As always, no knowledge of steampunk or Cymbeline is necessary to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, but if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online.

Just like a corgi on a whale-watching boat

Confession time: I’m not sure what’s going to happen next week.

Sorry, that’s a bit of a fake-out. I know where Innogen is going. I’m just not certain how it’s going to get done. See, this has been an odd month for me; there have been a lot of holidays at work, and several times now I’ve had the luxury of spending four straight days pounding out a draft or gnawing away at notes or obsessively line-editing. But that’s all in the past now: my next weekday break will be Thanksgiving, which presents its own delights and challenges. (I get to see my parents! My dog! My nieces from Seattle! I… don’t know when I’ll have two minutes to myself!)

There’s time yet to set up a routine, as I tell myself, and that’s my goal for the coming month. If I can cut out my Tuesday activity (obsessively checking stats after posting a new installment) and replace it with planning and outlining, that means three or four days for drafting and two or three days for honing. One thing I admire about web comic creators is their ability to produce on a consistent — and quick — schedule. That’s discipline. Fingers crossed, I can follow their example.

Second confession: I am so grateful and thrilled and overwhelmed at the response to the first chapter of Innogen and the Hungry Half. To all who have read, and commented, and contacted me over Twitter and email and Tumblr, thank you. I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me. To those who have shared this story with your friends, loved ones and readerships, my undying gratitude! There will be more — if you’re digging the story, please keep spreading the word. (If you’d like to recommend this story to your network of choice, please know that it is one of several ways straight to my heart. I so appreciate any and all word of mouth. If you don’t like it, tell your enemies!)

“Not imagined, felt” was a big day for Imogen and co. (For the curious, this is the source of the chapter title.) Here’s a hint at what’s coming for her next.

One song

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about Aaron Sorkin. I’m stealing some key components of this story from The West Wing, and recently had the revelation that if Imogen is a much politer Josh Lyman, then Posthumus is clearly Donna Moss. That pleased me. But my first Sorkin show was Studio 60, and early in that run, Matt Albie, head (and sole) writer of a 90-minute comedy revue, realizes he has to repeat his feat every week. At first it’s exciting. Then he turns to pills and self-pity.

Maybe I shouldn’t think about Studio 60 right now.

Two links
This was not intentional, but it’s been a heck of a week to do searches on Libya. I poked around and found a stunning slideshow of Roman ruins in the old city of Leptis Magna. They were published in the context of whether they might survive the war for independence, which has just taken a rather stunning turn with Gaddafi’s death.

In less charged news, I’ve been learning a lot about starfish lately — including the fact that we’re supposed to call them sea stars, as they’re not fish. Either way… just saying.

Three lines

Dr. Cornelius advises the king on scientific matters, while the king funds his research, the shape of which seems Protean. At present, it involves open tubs of briny water, and a half-finished dissection somewhere close by. He looks somewhat shyly toward the mess.

Yes, I had to dissect starfish/sea stars in high school biology. My teacher didn’t give us any directions: we just came into the classroom and there they all were in a bucket, waiting for us. I made a complete hash of it, and felt awful for years after that I had turned what had formerly been a living, eating, probably sentient creature into an indiscriminate pile of mush.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these teasers. Come back Tuesday to see what they all mean!

Hi! You don’t have to know anything about steampunk or Cymbeline to enjoy Innogen and the Hungry Half, though of course, if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online. For a lighter, quick summary, you can watch the short video linked at the bottom of this post. I assure you the original text is exactly that ridiculous, wonderful and strange.