alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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The Memory Maze

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

I’m on the elventh month and third-ish draft of this whole ‘Let’s Write A Novel’ project, and I’ve come to one glaringly obvious conclusion. Novels are big. REALLY BIG. With all these bits that branch and then branch again and again, and if you follow the branches sometimes you come to the ONE THING THAT WILL SAVE YOUR NOVEL and sometimes your face bounces off a prickly green wall and you have to turn around and start all over again. But then you come back to that same intersection and you think, “Left had the angry bees at the end, so I should go right.” Except, maybe it was right that had the booby trap and left is the safe way. Or was that the turn before? But your face is all swollen with hives and you think you might be going into anaphylactic shock and you feel all trembly and why is everything going dark and….CLONK.

So, when wending your way through the maze that is your novel, you need strategy. And that strategy is ORGANIZATION. Everybody’s going to do this differently, but there are tools that can help you find your way out before the bees hollow out your alimentary cavity and turn your intestines into a honeycomb.

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  • I do most of my thinking longhand, which means I’ve already filled 4.5 spiral-bound notebooks and a bunch of looseleaf with thoughts and scenes (And whining. Whining takes up space too.) Reading a novel is (usually) a pretty linear experience. But writing it isn’t. So what happens when you’re working on Part 3, Scene 12 when all of a sudden you’re seized with inspiration that will remake Part 1, Scene 20 in a blaze of literary glory and your brain is firing so fast with this dazzling save that you can barely write fast enough to get it down? YOU WRITE IT DOWN, OF COURSE. But now you need to be able to find it again when it’s useful. Sometimes this is as simple as marking the scene # with a different colored-ink, to make it easy to spot when you’re flipping back through.

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  • SCRIVENER: I love Scrivener. Not only does it keep all of my scenes and revised scenes and scraps and research and photos in a single file, it also has the excellent “Document Notes” in the right-hand pane. I didn’t use this much when writing short stories, but I love it for a novel. When I finish working on a scene, I write down what things I want to work on in the next draft (“What Needs To Be Done”). I also make notes about scene goals and character motivation to remind me what I’m writing towards.

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  • EVERNOTE: Another genius application that encourages me to be more organized. Bonus: it’s on the web, it’s on my phone, it’s on every computer everywhere. I can ALWAYS put a note in here, tag it, and find it later when I’m writing. I can even make audio notes if I’m seized with inspiration when I’m out and can’t take my hands out of my mittens long enough to type on my dinky phone keyboard. Evernote lets you keep separate notebooks for different topics. My novel notes don’t get mixed up with planning my fantasy escape to some climate where it’s not below zero during the day or recipes for pies I want to bake. Notes are taggable and fully searchable and filterable. I use notes to make lists: of all scenes where a certain secondary character appears, of key moments in character development, of possible character names, of potential setting locations, of scenes I want to include in the next draft. I use notes to type out and save examples: of particularly proficient prose (by other authors), of action well-described, of active setting, of strong voice, of all the best parts of other books that I want to steal for my own.

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So how much do these tricks and tools really help? Well, I’m not finished with the book, so the verdict’s still out. But I think if you pack your explorer’s kit with these handy utensils, you reduce the chances of having to eat your own shoe leather just to stay alive. But the smart adventurer always stays alert—and remember: Keep a sharp eye out for bees.

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr

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Trick Writer At the Rodeo

Bucking Horse, 1910

I was getting my hair cut today and my stylist mentioned that she thought there was a rodeo coming to town this weekend. Then she confessed that when she was a little girl, she wanted to be a barrel racing, bronc riding cowgirl. My mom used to take me to the rodeo at least once a year (she used to compete at pole bending, which is like the junior version of barrel racing) and while I enjoyed it all, especially the clowns and the chance to eat deep-fried mushrooms and pulled-pork barbecue (hey, this was before I went vegetarian), I LOVED the trick riders.

Fancy riding demonstration at the rodeo of the San Angelo Fat Stock Show, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940

I could just see myself in a spangled vest and fancy white chaps, vaulting on and off my horse, swinging under his belly, and coming up to stand on his back as I galloped triumphantly around the arena, twirling my lasso. For a few weeks after the rodeo, I would practice crawling between my horse’s legs, turning all the way around in the saddle and facing backwards, and going from sitting to standing on the back on my (patient, sainted) horse, Najmar. I could keep my balance at a walk, but anything faster and I started to wobble and slid down on his back.

“Girl rodeo performer,” by Russell Lee, 1940

This surge of trick-riding memory started mixing up with the SF signal article I read yesterday about directions SF hasn’t taken. Particularly Kelly McCullough’s comments about the absence of Western crossovers:

In particular, given the success of paranormal romance and the rise of steampunk, I’m rather shocked we haven’t seen much in the way of fantasy/western crossovers. Seriously, who wouldn’t be interested in the intersection where Deadwood meets Game of Thrones. The history and mythology of America’s western expansion provides plenty of scope for dark, morally ambiguous stories with tons of drama and very high stakes.

This strikes me as pretty right. The only books I can think of along these lines are Emma Bull‘s Territory (2007), which retells the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the shootout at the OK Corral–with magic) and Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda series. And, OK, Cowboys & Aliens.

Before I got older and fell into the trap of romance novels (by way of Jane Austen, gateway drug), I was a fan of the Linda Craig pony mysteries. Originally written in the 1960s and re-issued in the 80s, they featured teen sleuth Linda Craig and her intrepid Palomino pony, Chica d’Oro. There are jewel thieves, treasure maps, ghost towns, ghost horses, and ancient secrets. The series was produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, also responsible for Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, etc. Like Nancy Drew, and that other childhood favorite, Scooby Doo, the stories contained supernatural teases, but mundane solutions.

I’m thinking I should channel all that. I’m thinking historical American West. A girl trick rider protagonist. The rodeo circuit, treasure hunts, shoot-outs, card games and land grabs. Plus magic. What do you think?

I leave you with “Pansy Den, Girl Vaquero of Santa Barbara”

Pansy Den, Girl Vaquero. From the San Francisco Call, November 13, 1910. [Library of Congress, Chronicling America]