Tensing up

I used to write short stories by sitting down and starting. Blank page, rough word count in mind, and go.

These days, I’m less inclined to begin without knowing where I’m going. (Yes, I traded in pantserdom for plannerdom.) I’ll start in my notebook, jotting down character or setting notes, poking at plot points. I might even start writing a paragraph or two by hand, to see if it feels right, before I transition to a Word document or OneNote page.

I’ve been working on my February short story for The Accidental Magic Project for about a week now, starting with the above notebook material. I’d actually come up with a potential starting place, and typed up five paragraphs of prose virtually…but then I’d stalled. It didn’t feel quite right.

I went over and over and over the words, looking for the weak spots. I tweaked something here and there half-heartedly. It didn’t feel like the changes were fixing the problem.

Then last night, I was reading it “aloud” in my head, and about halfway through it struck me — I had changed the tense from past to present in my reading.

The story came alive! My main character, Savas, wasn’t just dickish in the past, he was dickish now, and this gave the narrative the immediacy I didn’t even know I’d been looking for. Off I went, speeding towards the plot points I’d outlined in my notebook.

Which brings me to the point of this post: If you’re stuck, try changing tenses. It won’t solve every instance of writer’s block, but it’s an immediate, powerful shift in purpose and perspective.

In present tense, I find that characters’ desires are more pressing, more present. I also find that even when I’m writing in third person, I draw closer to my main character when I write in present tense. (I use present tense exclusively in my [stalled] serial story “A Mutiny of Pirates.”)

Some stories demand the emotional distance provided by past tense. But if you’re sensing that yours doesn’t, give present tense a whirl and see how it goes.

Leisure of the miiquils

Today on Twitter, I posted this “Promptly”:

Promptly: Setting Saturday. In the world of your current work, describe leisure culture. Freewrite for 10 minutes, or 2 sprints of 5 minutes.

Since I’m trying to provide examples in the same breath, I wrote a brief response about my miiquil species (from the world of Portent)… and ended up thinking about it all day. (I blame one of my art & writing inspirations, whom I’ll call TVWT, for inspiring me to expand on this kind of public worldbuilding as a way of motivating myself to explore my world further!)

Leisure of the miiquils

Miiquils are very social creatures, and generally prefer to spend their leisure time with friends and family. Since leaving Miiqua, the colony has become even more close-knit and insular, making their culture’s emphasis on feasts, festivals, and group worship even more prominent.

Feasts

Food plays a major role in miiquil culture, due to their origins as a gatherer society, constantly on the move to escape the predatory species that chased them. When they have excess, they consume it quickly together, enjoying the time spent over a delicious meal. When times are leaner, or they’re on the move and can’t afford to carry much extra sustenance, they focus on flavor subtleties and the inherent enjoyment of the eating experience.

Families, extended families, neighbor groups, and even entire clans will eat together; any occasion is just an excuse to pull extra food and drink from storage and indulge in gluttony.

Some of their favorite foods include:

  • Daari-stuffed pastries
  • A hearty yet light bean soup called cardil, made with chickpeas and onions
  • Boppan (lentil “meatballs”)
  • Lightly-grilled fish and other sea life (though most miiqs are actually vegetarians for most of the year)

Their favorite spices include bay leaves, parsley, black pepper, cumin, and a variety of chili peppers, all of which they call by very different names.

Festivals

Miiquils are festival-happy: about half of their festivals are ritualistic preparations for the other half. Since the celebrations and traditions are all tied to the seasons and their planet’s rotation around its sun, they can be adapted to whatever world the miiquils are currently inhabiting. In the case of Kihata (their word for Earth), the years are shorter than on Miiqua, and so there is a festival nearly every other (human) week.

During any festival, miiqs will throw large parties, spend a lot of time eating and drinking, and pray en masse.

Rain-season festivals are about renewal, fresh starts, new love, and births. Feasts are modest, as there is less fresh food early in the year, before the heat has had time to coax new plants out of the earth. But those who survived hard winters are often feeling quite delighted about surviving — and are in the mood to perpetuate the species, right as the roughly year-long gestation period comes to an end for young-bearers and the new generation is born.

Heat-season festivals center around abundance, success, coming-of-age, and fertility. When miiqs can safely settle in one place for a while, the heat-season is a time of harvest and plenty, a time when bellies are full and heads are clear enough to give older adolescents their welcome to adulthood.

Cold-season festivals celebrate ancestors, survival, togetherness, and family. Even a humid rainforest-heavy planet like Miiqua saw its colder season, when food plants died off or stopped producing, and predators grew hungry and extra nasty. Cold-season is a time to be thankful for being alive and with loved ones, and is also the time when communities get together to create large communal art projects, which they trade for other community art at other seasonal festivals.

Temples and religion

The miiquils worship a quadrant of forces, the most powerful forces of the planet on which they reside. On Miiqua, these were Wind, Skyfire (lightning), Sea, and Moon (theirs was very large and had a significant pull on the tides). On Kihata, these are Wind, Sea, Stone, and Green (Miiqua’s plant life was rarely green). Collectively, the forces are referred to as “cherann,” or “life-givers and life-takers” (the literal English translation).

In miiquil tradition, cherann are not actual personified beings, but rather the underlying fabric of the worlds and therefore to be heeded, respected, and consulted. Followers of cherann are not generally superstitious, but rather practical and logic-driven, yet able to both see and sense how all things are connected and influenced by one another. This even allows some of them, through intense training begun early in a miiq’s life, to become “seercasters” — that is, combining knowledge of the laws of physics with the power of cherann to create such intense illusions that they may be acted upon as real by living beings who encounter them.

Most miiqs believe in cherann, or at least live their life by its natural rhythms. At the four corners of any miiquil settlement — including Naushena, the island on which the miiqs live in “Portent” — a temple is placed for each cherann. This is dictated by tradition.

Not dictated by tradition, however, is the placement of these temples; this is eclectic, left up to the individual city planners to decide. On Naushena, Sea is at the north, Wind is at the east, Green at the south, and Stone at the west. (There are probably reasons for this, but nobody is sure of them.)

Miiqs often go right after their labors are over to pray and meditate at one of the four temples. Though all miiqs can and do worship at any temple, most gravitate towards a particular one, often (but not always) associated with where Kihata was in its revolution around the sun when they were born.

Studiolog: Week of January 1st

It’s 2018! Yay, another human-dictated increment of time-passing has occurred!  Well, OK, the Earth’s regular rotation isn’t a bad measurement. Fine.

No matter the reason for the new season, it’s a good time to launch new projects, make announcements of intentions, and reflect and set goals. At least, I like to do that — gives me fewer excuses to stop doing something if I’ve promised to do it “just for one year,” and if that year is easy to measure (like, January 1st to December 31st).

So what have the Shames been up to? It’s been a weird short week, due to the holidays, so the studio has not been hyperactive the past few days. However… I’m very excited to announce The Accidental Magic Project! Jill and I have dreamed up numerous projects in the past together (such as The Scribblers’ Club, an unfinished novel called “Return to Elgin,” and our original 50 Unexplainable Stories (and its year-long sequel, the unnamed challenge), and this might just be my favorite.

The gist of The Accidental Magic Project is this: every Friday, one of us (myself, Jill, or Janice) or our guests will post a story. The theme of that story will be “accidental magic” — meaning magic that, intentionally or unintentionally, brings about unintended consequences. I cannot wait to see what kinds of stories our writers come up with on this theme. I’ll be posting the very first one tomorrow!

I’m so excited, too, because I’ve gotten some brand new writers on board, along with writers I’ve collaborated with in the past and am ecstatic to work with again. One of our guests’ 11- and 9-year-old daughters will even be sharing their stories with us! That’s my very favorite thing about creative projects that get artists working together: watching those who’ve never tried something like this before understanding the power of seeing it through, of having finished a story. It’s simply magical.

This week, I also launched Promptly on Twitter, a daily series of writing prompts I’ve created to get folks interested in my current project: a book of writing prompts with “Promptly” in the title. I’m saving my best ones for the book, of course, but here’s an example of the daily prompts I quite enjoyed writing.

The Shames have been prepping for the art-heavy year ahead, acquiring some a new hard drive for capturing footage, as well as a LOT of art reference books for publishing projects and promotional materials. (Like, a LOT. We cleaned out an entire section of Half Price Books.)

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Beautiful moments of 2017

No doubt 2017 was a rough year for a lot of the world. I find myself among the privileged, so I can only imagine how it was for those who can’t hide away from the awful things in the news, because those things are a part of their reality.

So instead of lingering on the painful moments, and in the spirit of thankfulness, I wanted to record a few of my most beautiful moments of 2017:

Clicking “Publish” on Daugment, a moment I’d spent decades building up to.

Holding my first physical Cortana product in my hands for the first time, and talking to my digital progeny from the kitchen.

Communing with my flock of crows as they preened sleepily in the late spring heat.

Collecting a set of prayers, blessings, and spells from around the world on the morning of the total eclipse, then donning my special glasses to murmur the prayers and watch the crescent consumption of the sun for a few hours, knowing the rest of the country was doing the same in that creepy, blessed half-light.

Sitting perched on a stool, a hot laptop on my knees, with my Damn Shames crew around me, bantering with GrayheadedGamer and about 100 hardcore Star Citizen fans about Ships Illustrated and why we love making stories.

Screaming until I was hoarse at a Storm game, with Amy by my side doing the same, remembering exactly why I love the thunder and squeak of the basketball court.

Standing over Snoqualmie Falls with my husband of nearly five years now, marveling at how much we still love to kiss each other even when our noses are frozen red.

Micro-magic

The roots of his teeth were magic. He could feel the storms in them, knew the names of the winds before they blew through his woods.

Her fingernails were magic. They glimmered when a child lied in her presence.

Their loom was magic. They wove stories into the blankets they made, stories whispered nightly in a sleeper’s ear to soothe or disturb.

The tuft of hair that always fled her ponytail was magic. It pointed the way she ought to go when her cursed sense of direction led her astray.

His snores were magic, putting yappy dogs and fussy babies to sleep without objection.

The spiderwebs across their front door were magic. They kept Death from entering for nearly 70 years.

Her wedding ring was magic. She could find anything lost in the house, but only when she wore it.

Taking myself seriously

Earlier this year, squadmate Amy sent me a Sarah Cooper article. Beyond the fact that the article was painfully spot-on (I’m guilty of all of them except maybe the one-handed typing and the moustache), it was well-written and enticing. I went deeper into her catalog.

And I found “Do You Take Yourself Seriously?

My heart sank as I read through it. Because no, I didn’t, not really.

These three quotes stood out to me, as what happens when you don’t take yourself seriously:

“You can no longer tell the difference between what you want and what other people want from you.”

“You resent people who do [take themselves seriously]. You look at people who promote themselves and their ideas and you think they’re egotistical or ridiculous.”

You rush through a half-hearted execution and don’t give yourself the time you need to learn something new, or do it the right way. And when it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted you decide it was a total waste of time.”

Oh. Ouch. That’s familiar.

Cooper even expresses her own doubts about writing the very piece that I was reading, published on Medium. Her thoughts, as transcribed, sound so much like my own inner monologue does on a regular basis: “Why am I writing this? This is stupid. This is repetitive. Hasn’t someone else said this before but better? Do I even know what I’m trying to say?”

Oh. Ouch. That’s familiar too.

If those lines hit you in the same feels they hit me, I recommend a full read-through of the article, because Cooper takes you swooping over those immense pits of despair she bitingly describes in perfect detail, and then up, up, towards the light, in a way pull-quotes don’t capture.

The thing is, what Cooper’s talking about is very simple, though not very easy. It’s “just” a change in mindset. “Just” an attitude adjustment.

That is to say: It is both an overnight and a lifelong change.

After I first read this article about four months ago, I decided to take myself seriously. How did it go? One clue: I finished Portent after just over two months of really working on it. Another clue: I still had to edit myself in the above sentence from “I decided to try and take myself seriously” to “I decided to take myself seriously.”

Progress is happening, it just ain’t easy.

Such tiny differences — making a conscious effort not to pre-judge myself, giving myself as much benefit of the doubt as I would give someone I love, and treating my ideas like cherished possibilities — have made some huge changes in the way I’ve done things since September. I think about my art as a business in a clearer way, and I’m reading and learning and writing (privately, so far) about how to make my publishing model work. I pitch myself and my ideas to people I’ve just met (admittedly, they’ve mostly been online).

I know the magic of this revelation could fade, and that I might need a reminder in a few months to read Sarah Cooper’s article again. But that’s okay. It’s a damn good article.

Studiolog: Week of December 25th

This week has flown by, being Christmas week and all — and as such, it wasn’t the most productive week at the Damn Shames Studio. PSH. Who am I kidding? I finished a book!

That was the most significant moment this week: I finished my first draft of “Portent” right around midnight last night. It clocks in around 65k words, which is about 5k less than I thought I’d hit by the time I finished Draft #1. (That said, it seems to be in better shape than I thought it would be!) My plan is to kickstart something else this week, with the momentum I’ve built up the last couple of months (thanks, NaNoWriMo!), and then get “Portent” revised by mid-February.

Meanwhile, I listed out my projects at three different stages: Planning, Writing, and Revision. I then ordered them by value — which will give me the most bang for my buck when it comes to reader funnels. This led to the above decision about revising “Portent” first, and I hope this will give me a good sense of prioritization as I enter the new year.

Some exciting news: I’ll be announcing a new project with Jill Corddry (and a few others) in the next installment of Studiolog! We’ve been dreaming this up for a few months now, and thanks to our web designer Patrick, we’re about to have an amazing website ready to share with the world. And then…content!

Our graphics man, Josh (hire him, he’s great), made some progress on assets for “Haulin’ Ass with Half_Pint” — a streaming show about Star Citizen, mostly starring Amy (who doesn’t have a web presence yet — yes, I’m calling you out, Ames!). We’ll be launching “Haulin’ Ass” in 2018. (Interested in assets for a streaming show? We provide those services at reasonable rates, so please contact us!)

We continue to practice Grand Theft Auto V missions, and we’ve brought in Patrick and our pals Zach and Iron to help. Between the seven of us, we’re going to make some content about GTAV: cinematic story-driven play, and blooper reels.

Finally, we brainstormed some recipes for our various cookbook projects. I hope to publish at least one of those in 2018!

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Cross-notebook links in OneNote

OH MAN. You know you’re in for an exciting ride when that’s the title of a blog post. (Sorry, kids, SEO reasons.) But before you run off, already bored, let me tell you about something that makes my meal planning really easy.

(Whoops! This isn’t a writing-related example, per se – but if I didn’t have a meal plan in place, with a household of five adults, I wouldn’t have time to write. So. Tangentially related!)

As I might have mentioned previously, OneNote is my saving grace when it comes to keeping my life on track. When our three roommates moved in with me and the hub, we decided to do a food sharing plan that involved a good deal of administrative work (and a decent deal for everyone involved). One of the first things I did was craft up a table for our weekly meal planning:

A typical week’s food for five. Thank the universe I don’t usually have to worry about breakfasts and lunches…

I make one of these weekly or so, and it keeps us on track, more or less.

But see those blue links? Those are what this post is about. Those are cross-notebook links. Any one of them I click on will take me to the corresponding recipe in my Cookbook OneNote (a topic for another post). Which means that I can not only line up my food ideas for myself and my roommates, I can also line up the instructions.

Here’s how you can do it for yourself:

Type some text you want to turn into a link to another notebook.

Select it and press Ctrl + K (or select Insert > Link).

In the box marked “Or pick a location in OneNote,” start typing the name of the page you want to link to.

When it appears, select it and choose OK.

Your cross-notebook link will now carry you to your intended destination!

Using this, plus a table, you can quickly brainstorm and then link up a meal plan from your favorite recipes, stored in OneNote. (I’ll explain how to set this system up for yourself in another post!)

Studiolog: Week of December 18th

This was a good week in the Damn Shames Studio! As this is the first installment of Studiolog, I’ll cover a little bit of last week’s Shamesian activities too, since they were quite relevant to this week.

First, we worked with Nicole of Mischief & Mouse (who I talked a bit about last week) to create a parody of the children’s book that launched several series: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Ours is a work of fan-fiction set in the world of Star Citizen, and it’s called “If You Give a Mouse a Merlin” (a Merlin being the least-expensive ship in the game). We launched it on Sunday night, and all throughout Monday and even into Tuesday, Star Citizen fans on Reddit and Twitter gave us lots of positive feedback.

We also delivered some pre-stream and post-stream graphics, along with text branding, for one of our Twitch streamer friends, JJ2078. (These are services we provide at reasonable rates, if you or one of your friends are interested in building an online presence!)

As a group, we’ve been practicing some intense combat sequences in Grand Theft Auto V together. That’s because the Star Citizen first-person (but cooperative) narrative game will likely have a launch date soon, and we plan on doing a playthrough as a squad when it’s out — so we need to be good (in video games) at coordinated combat!

I got some updated graphics from our kick-ass web (and all-around) designer Patrick to promote this month’s 99c sale of Daugment. Those can be found on my Twitter account and my Facebook page. (Incidentally, Patrick did the cover for Daugment as well!)

Personally, I’ve been reading Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant‘s “Write. Publish. Repeat.” to get myself ready for my 2018 goals (which include publishing at least 3 books, which is 3x more books than I published in 2017!). I’ve taken lots of good notes, and think I’ve got some good strategies going into the new year (and what is always, cliché or not, a fresh start of sorts for me) — the most important of which is, just write. And secondarily, just publish.

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Creating tables in OneNote

Tables are the best. (NERD ALERT.) I’m no traditionally-trained project manager, but damn if I don’t love to track things in columns and rows.

Here’s a pretty traditional usage of tables in my OneNote notebooks: my breakdown of our first issue of Ships Illustrated.

Nothing fancy! Just the content, the person responsible, and the status. Nice and basic.

This is another table I created to track a Star Citizen-related project — ship buyer’s guides. This broke them down by ship type, what stories we wrote for each guide, and the taglines we used. Then I color-coded to indicate status (i.e. it was a finished guide, we had all the ships necessary, the ships weren’t ready…).

What do these tables have in common? They were created in OneNote with pretty much zero effort on my part.

Here’s how you can do it for yourself:

Go to the page where you’d like your table.

Type the first column heading. Press Tab.

Type the next column heading. Press tab and repeat until you have as many columns as you want.

Press Enter to start the first row, and tab to move to the next box.

Quick as you like, you’ve got a table! It’s searchable like all other textual content in your notes. All you need to do is make that top column bold and you’ve got enough for a quick and easy reference.

A table I threw together when I was brainstorming my current project, Portent.

Use this trick to put everything into tables. Put your holiday shopping list into a table (Person, Gift, Purchased?, Wrapped?, Gifted?). Put your 2018 resolutions into a table. Put your private diary entries into a ding-dang table.

Books and bytes