Exercising the mental muscles. Part I: The Shore is Grey

February 19th, 2017Posted by Nancy


I’ve been less productive than hoped since Christmas (work, events, general laziness to blame) but I did revisit some of the exercises I did from Wonderbook by jeff Vandermeer.  The last one was quite challenging, as it involved rewriting a scene multiple times (some of which I admit to having skipped from lack of interest).  Because I generally have very little to post here, I thought – aha! – I’ll post the exercise.

The first step was to write a scene between two characters with no dialogue and with only description to convey what is happening between them.  I cheated a bit by having them observing a third character but she never speaks. This version automatically assumed the present tense and I quite liked parts of it. I’ll be the first to confess that it did bog down in the unheard dialogue section.  What did I learn?  Well, I already knew that I have a ridiculous love of writing descriptions of weather and nature.  My favorite words reappear.  But I learned some things about the woman with the hat that I had known before and that was very useful.

The photo here is actually Lake Minnewanka, near Banff.  It was taken by my husband on his iphone in colour and has no filters. This is really what it looked like. It’s not exactly the landscape for the scene that follows but it seemed appropriate.

SPEAK, DON’T SPEAK Exercise Part I

The shore is grey. There is no sand on the wide beach, only stones. The cliffs beyond it rise fifty feet high, grey shale and winter-whitened lichen. Here and there, a weathered tree clings to a split in the stone, but they too are grey with salt and struggle. A path winds its way in switchbacks down the side of the cliff. There are footprints in the loose grit and gouges were a foot has slipped.

The dark, rolling waves of the sea mirror the slate-coloured clouds that billow and belly above them. They break on half-hidden rocks and hit the pebbled beach with a rush and a hiss. Somewhere beyond the clouds, the sun is sloping downwards, southward in the sky, but no hint of light breaks through.

From the sea, if one rode those waves, the beach would look like a stage, set for some grim northern tragedy. There is only one spot of colour in all that grey; the somber burgundy of the long coat worn by the woman standing at the base of the wall of shale. She had worn a hat of matching hue but the wind threatened to send it cartwheeling down the beach so now she holds it in her hands. If there were a setting sun to touch it, her hair would shine auburn. Beneath the lowered sky, it looks merely dark, pulled tightly back from her face. The face itself is smooth, like the sea-tumbled rocks, but it is not a young woman’s face. Her hands, ungloved, are not a young woman’s hands. There is a beginning of thickening in the bones of the knuckles and when she tightens her grip on the hat, the fine bones move beneath skin the texture of crepe.

Her gaze is seaward, towards the young woman who crouches near the water’s edge. Her clothes are dark, her unbound hair a flag in the wind from the water.  Her bare hands rest on the stones and once in while her fingers dig into the mass of them, turning and tumbling them.  When the waves are strong, the water rushes up and around her, turning her long skirts darker as they lift away from her ankles. It must be bone-chilling, that water, but she gives no sign of it. Her eyes are closed, her face lifted and tilted, as if she is listening to something very faint and far away. Her lips move, once in a while, on words that are not clear.

Beside the woman in burgundy, a man paces, measured steps back and forth across the rocks. Like his companion, he carries his broad-brimmed black hat, revealing iron-grey hair tossed by the wind. His coat is the same hue, though there is the flash of white from the lace at his wrists when he lifts his hand to brush away a tangle of hair from his eyes.  His face is narrow and sharp, from high forehead to neatly trimmed beard. He watches the woman on the shore, though once in a while he glances up towards the cliff-top, as if expecting to see something there.

The woman touches the sharp line of her hair where it meets her forehead. She looks at the man as he begins another turn and speaks. His brows lift a little and his shoulders shift in the faintest of shrugs as he replies.

As she speaks again, he pauses in his motion, and they both look towards the woman on the beach.  Words die for a moment; a frown folds her smooth forehead. There is something tentative in her voice then.

His answer is short and he resumes his pacing, staring down at his boots for a moment before glancing back up at the escarpment above him. Whatever he expects to see is not visible, for he looks away again. He glances at his companion and says something, the equivocal shrug returning.

On the beach, the young woman bends her head and the wind winds her hair like a veil over her face. Her hands are in the numbing water, fanned out as she can grasp the waves and hold them there. As she watches, the woman in burgundy pulls her coat tighter and shifts her weight. The man in black stops pacing.

A sound comes from the figure at the water’s edge but it caught by the wind before the observers can tell if it is a cry of triumph or despair. She rises in a column of black and turns to pick hers way back across the jumbled beach towards them. Her hair flows and flashes across her face but she does to try to push it back.

As she nears the waiting pair, the man steps forward and speaks. She nods and smiles and walks past them without another look, to begin the walk up the slanting path. Her wet skirts drag the lines of her passing the loose grit. She lifts them up for a moment then lets them drop, her head high, her hair swirling around her head like seaweed.

After a moment, the man sighs and holds out his arm. The older woman accepts it and then takes a breath visible in the lift of her shoulders. She says something softly and he tilts his head to hear her then shakes his head with another sigh. They climb the path, following the lines in the sand.

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Picture this, Part III

January 25th, 2017Posted by Nancy

The hardest character to find a decent picture for has been Leontine.  After hunting around for a while, I finally decided to go back to my first inspiration, which was a little girl in Fillippo Lippi’s “The Coronation of the Virgin”.  And lo and behold, Signor Lippi had a few other lovely paintings, one of which yielded the image above.  It’s not quite perfect but it’s not a bad image for a woman who excels at math, becomes an alchemist and the Royal Magician, and then … but that would be telling.

Below is the original instruction, which comes from one of the most gorgeous paintings I’ve ever seen.

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Picture this, Part II

January 6th, 2017Posted by Nancy

Being the second in my series of inspiration pictures for the WIP.

I found the first of these images on my Beautiful Bizarre Magazine instagram feed, which is a constant source of incredible art that could serve as inspiration for dozens of stories (were I the sort of person who could have that many ideas).  It’s actually from a photo shoot for Vogue magazine, done by an Icelandic photographer named Anna Osk Erlingsdottir.  This picture led me to her site, which is full of equally lovely things.

Both of these are reference photos for Erzabet, one of the triumvarite of women who drive the new book.  In the course of the story she’s a child in a small fishing village, an accused witch, a Royal Magician, and …. well, you know how the next bit goes. That would be telling.

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In Heavy Rotation

December 19th, 2016Posted by Nancy

I first heard Dessa (aka Dessa Darling, aka Margaret Wander) listening to one of Welcome to Nightvale’s live podcasts. She and Paper Tiger performed “Call off Your Ghost” and I thought, well, that’s pretty cool, I should find out more. So I did, and discovered that Dessa is a singer, composer, songwriter, rapper, and spoken word artist from Minneapolis. I listened to a few songs online and then acquired both of her albums.  I listened to them over and over on my ipod on the way to work and back.  I listened to them while I did yoga in the basement. I don’t think I listened to anything else for a month. I still go through Dessa phases.

Why do I love her work so much?

It’s not just the music, though I love the melodies and the interesting sounds she finds and uses. It’s not just the confidence that comes through in so many of her songs, though we live in a culture that’s not used to woman being assertive about their art and ambition.  The rap influence is probably at play here (she has a song called “The Bullpen” explicitly about being a woman in that world) but her expression of it is unique.  I think that’s why these songs made me uncomfortable, because I’m not nearly as confident as the woman in songs like “Fighting Fish”, in which she states: “I wanna try, I wanna take risks/I don’t wanna walk, rather swing and miss/I’m not above apologies but I don’t ask permission/I got a lot of imperfections but I don’t count my ambition in them”.   This seems to me like a profoundly female statement of ambition: she’ll aim high, but she’ll apologize if she needs to, because who needs another jerk on the stage. She has no interest in being bound by conventions of genre.  She’s rapped, sung, arranged music for a choir, and collaborated on classical compositions.


I love her because she loves words, which I suppose is what you’d expect from an artist who started as a poet and has a degree in philosopy. She loves wordplay, literary allusion, consonance, alliteration, upending cliches, and all the other tricks that writers use. Most of all, she seems to love story  (it’s no surprise that she writes both fiction and non-fiction prose).  Most of her songs contain a strong thread of narrative that drags my own imagination into the words and summons up histories and futures for her characters.  She sings about a difficult musical genius (“The Chaconne“), about watching a lover descend into mental illness (“Annabelle“), about admitting to the betrayals that destroyed a friendship (“Dear Marie“), and about offering advice to a relative caught up in something criminal (“Alibi“).  Even her love songs are richer and darker than the run-of-the-mill romantic fodder in popular music.

Best of all, for me many of her songs have an edge of the fantastic. I have no idea how intentional any of it is, but all my fantasy-honed buttons get pushed by songs like “Skeleton Key” (I come from over the horizon, every dozen years/go home, tell of my arrival, Skeleton Key’s here/….I’ve found work and welcome everywhere I’ve been/cause everyone’s got someplace they want to be let in) and the apocalyptic dreamscape of “The Beekeeper“(In the shadow of the mountain/we work when work abounds/and we wear out all our prayers/when the work runs out).

If those songs are fantasy, then “The Lamb” contains an undercurrent of horror. It’s a song about caring for an aging relative (father? brother? uncle?) guilty of an unspecified childhood abuse towards the narrator. The lyrics move between acceptance of the call of blood (but blood is blood/and what’s done is done/yeah, blood is blood/and it’s burden is a beast) and the desire for vengeance, or at least power (you’ve got a way with words/you got a way with murder/now our roles reverse/and your table’s turning).  Gets me every time.


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Picture this…

December 9th, 2016Posted by Nancy

I finished off Nanowrimo at just over 4,000 words so it was reasonably productive.  However, I’ve now started a three-day a week work contract so the next few months may be a bit slow.

One lovely way to pretend to be working is to look for visual references to help ground your words in something tangible. I’ve been looking for character and landscape references, so I’ll share those as they finalize for me.  While poking around on Google image searches for French actresses (to tie into my current “let’s just pretend it’s 17th century France” worldbuilding default), I came across the movie poster above, for the grim but excellent film by Agnes Varda.  The actress is Sandrine Bonnaire and this image evokes Vedette, who grows up in a city slum, steals the wrong purse, and then …. but that would be telling.


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NaNoWriMo we go…

November 22nd, 2016Posted by Nancy


Well, I’m a bit behind on this, as expected.

No, I did not expect to write a novel during November. However, I did use the National Novel Writing Month period to try to get as many words down as possible while I was working on Cold Hillside. I never managed more than about 10,000 – and I’d end up editing at least a third of those out later – but it provided some external discipline around the process.  As someone who doesn’t work out unless she’s in a class, I am well aware of my requirement for external motivation.

This year’s attempt has been hampered by my ongoing cold (excuses, excuses) but I am getting a bit done.  I hope that I’ll end up somewhere around 4,000 words, which I suppose it not bad considered that a) I really have no plot for this novel worked out yet and b) the dreaded “constriction” of my writing voice has returned. After feeling relatively expansive and confident during my “250 words a day” project in June, I once again feel like I’m shoving words through a tunnel much too small for them and as a consequence write no more than the minimum required to keep the scene moving along.  Perhaps given my tendency to write pretty adjectives and compound sentences, this is not entirely a bad thing. One must hope for the best.

How off to stop procrastinating and write something.

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California Dreaming

November 7th, 2016Posted by Nancy

Not very original, but hey, I’ve been sick.  We spent 10 days in California and returned to fever, weird dreams about Escher bodies, architecture and Hillary Clinton.

First stop: San Francisco.  We went to a distillery in a old airplane hangar, to Alcatraz, to a free museum full of arcade games, to the Japanese Tea Garden, to Napa in a mini-van, and walked for miles up and down the hills. I kept imagining what would happen there if it snowed.  You’d step out of your house and slide six blocks down before you could stop…   I reread the wonderful Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber on the plane.  It was the perfect way to put myself in the mood for SF.



We rented a car to drive down Highway 1 from SF to Los Angeles.  First stop was the amazing Winchester Mystery House.  This place figures in Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers, but I did not have time to reread that before the trip. (And on the trip we were asleep by 10:00 every night so very little reading was done.)  Unfortunately they don’t let you take pictures inside but it was surprisingly comfortable, once you got around the stairs that ended in ceilings and doors to nowhere.


We had perfect weather for the drive down the coast, from Pacific Grove to Cayucos.  The driver in the party reports that the experience was quite satisfying – and not nearly as nerve-wracking as the unexpected drive over the mountains to Santa Barbara in the dark.  Note to self: Doublecheck the real names of the roads before following the Google map.  “Highway 154” seems harmless – “San Marco Pass” does not. Also, Santa Barbara does not believe in streetlights. Or pedestrians.

Hearst Castle was a “must-see” for the trip and we spent most of a day there. It’s grand, overstuffed, and weirdly impractical (those small, twisty staircases must have been fun after a glass of wine).  I’d happily stay in one of the “cottages”, though.  I especially liked that fact that all couples travelling together got two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a sitting room.  It was clearly assumed that no one actually slept together.


On to LA. We stayed just south of Wiltshire Boulevard, in an area of 1920s and 1930s homes. It felt very “LA” and actually allowed us to walk to LACMA, the LaBrea Tar Pits, and the Petersen Car Museum.  We also went to the Getty and the Broad, to make up for all the art we didn’t see in SF.

Below is a lovely diorama from the LaBrea Tar Pits, because it’s the dream of every fossil-loving child to see a sabre-tooth tiger killing a giant sloth. 


We had a great trip – but I don’t think I’d want to live there. It’s perilous enough in Canada.



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Here’s how to finish that book… Storming the Beaches

October 12th, 2016Posted by Nancy



Or more precisely, Here’s How to Finish that Fucking Book, You Monster, courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog.

To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, I find it very hard to finish books.  Hell, I find it hard to start books. And as for the stuff in the middle, well, I’m not terribly good at that either. So when this post showed up in my Facebook feed, I found it amusing and useful.

Some key things I’m trying to remember as I do my usual “drowning not waving” floundering about at the beginning of a book.

  • The only thing that matters is FORWARD MOTHERFUCKING MOMENTUM.
  • Kill your fear of failure
  • Skip the boring parts.
  • Divest yourself of ideas of quality. Quality matters in the end. Quantity matters in the beginning. Produce. Create. Write. Iterate. As I am fond of saying, that first draft isn’t just a zero draft, it isn’t just a vomit draft — it’s the beachstorming draft. It’s just you trying to land enough boats and enough soldiers on the sand that you can carve out a space to call your own. You’re just trying to advance the thing — one bloody, gory inch at a time. Quality? Fuck quality. Just get up the beach. You will rewrite history later.


This last one is hard to me, because I need to know a lot about a book to feel comfortable writing it, especially with fantasy.  In order to know the world, I need to know the characters, because the characters are shaped by the world they inhabit, but I don’t know the characters because I don’t know the world …. and I go around and around in circles, terrified of putting a stake in the ground for fear it’ll be the wrong stake and warp everything.

I also need to know what a book is about.  Not what the plot is, not who the characters are, but what it’s about.  This doesn’t mean it has a message but there has to be something I want to explore; how you recreate your existence when you’re a vampire, what does fidelity mean if you live forever, what is beauty,  what is the intersection of power and responsibility and what price does it demand of the person who has the power – and everyone around them?

I’m not at that stage in the new book yet. I’m still splashing around and putting off diving into the cold water. I try to remind myself that I’ve made considerably more progress than I had at this point in the long slog that was Cold Hillside. Of course, that’s not saying much.

Going forward, I’m going to try to throw some beachstorming into the mix, even if it alternates with dithering in the boats looking for my paddle.  Can’t hurt.

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Wonderbook that Brain!

September 28th, 2016Posted by Nancy

I’m still working through the exercises from Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the CraftI’m currently rewriting a snippet from the novel in limited third person, detached narrator, observer narrator, and involved author (omniscient) styles.  Needless to say, I’m quite adequate at limited third person – which is my primary mode of writing – and I struggle mightily with involved author.  To my surprise, I suspect that a good deal of the work I’ve done on the new book (the original short story and the “250 words a day” project) is actually written in a style quite close to that but that may be because the story started as my Tanith Lee tribute and she used that remote involved author voice to great effect.  Of course, I’ve also been writing one character’s section in the present tense and another character’s in second person (just because one does that, once in a while) so know hows how this will evolve.

In the continuing absence of plot – and while I continue to do things like read biographies of Cardinal Richelieu and watch the ULCA lecture series on Science, Religion and Magic on Youtube – I’ve found a new book of work with once I finish Steering the Craft.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is full of strange illustrations, penguins, maps of the structure of Iain Banks’ The Use of Weapons, interviews with writers like Lauren Beukes and George R. R. Martin, writing exercises, and pages of advice on narrative, characters, point of view and more. It looks fascinating (though I admit that it makes writing look like VERY hard work.  It is, but I’m not sure I want to be reminded of that at this stage).  There’s even a website with more exercises and information.

I’m looking forward to diving into it.

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Work that brain!

September 9th, 2016Posted by Nancy

To keep my writing muscles working while I’m suspended in “I’ve written everything that I know happens and now must actually develop a world and a plot” mode, I’m doing writing exercises. I’ve just started on the ones featured in Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful book Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.  (What, you don’t have the book? Go buy it right away.)  I’ve done it twice before, once in the mid 2000s and once in 2009.  I used the exercises to work on Cold Hillside wherever possible and some of the sections of Teresine working on her mosaics and remembering the past come directly from what I wrote then.   Of course, I also wrote a section about a woman getting bitten by a dog in Ramsden Park, which was far less useful in the long run, though good practice.

The process reaffirmed that I just cannot seem to master Authorial narration/omniscience for more than a paragraph or two but that I’m quite fond of eliminating punctuation (don’t worry, the next novel will not be an homage to Jose Saramago).  I did quite like pretending to be Jane Austen, though.

What do I hope to get from this exercise? Exercise, for one thing.  A decent sentence or two that might find its way into the new novel.  Some unexpected ways into the characters and plot.  And at least being able to claim that I did not fritter away ALL my time over the next month or two. To keep myself honest, I’ve recruited another writer or two to join in the process so we can share our experiments and maintain the pretense of discipline.

Here, for your amusement, is the Jane Austen sentence I wrote for the first go-round. The actual instruction was to write up to 350 words as one sentence.

            “Though she willed herself not to consider Maru’s chiding words, she found them echoing in her mind whenever she let her attention wander – which it did with appalling regularity despite her concerted attempts to otherwise engage it – and soon there emerged a succession of alternatives at which she worried without reaching resolution; that she ask him to leave and accept no responsibility for whatever grief he might endure over the loss of a regard she had never – or so she insisted to herself – invited; that she bed him and have done with it, trusting that wanting was more potent than having so that the inevitable disillusionment would soon set in and, with only the expected unpleasantness in such situations, bring the whole business to an end; or that she simply do what Maru accused her of, and run as far and as fast as she could.”

 I’m still quite fond of this.  Now I just need someplace to use it.

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