Sep 30, 2018

Writing When You Have Small Children: Mission Impossible?

As you might have noticed, juggling writing and parenting is an issue I've been struggling with since The Babe (who is now The Toddler, my how time flies!) entered my life. It started even before that, during the pregnancy: I just couldn't write through the nausea and exhaustion, and even when I felt okay, there were a million things to take care of before the baby came. And when she did arrive, most days were just a struggle to cope. Suffice to say, barely any writing got done during the first year.

But, things are looking up! Behold, posts have appeared on the blog fairly regularly for the past few weeks. Granted, not three a week, but even one or two a month is progress at this point. I'm finally reading The Kalevala, the Finnish national epoch, something I've needed to do so I can finish two short stories, and I'm actually making steady progress on the first of those stories. I managed to edit and send a story to the Portti competition. I wrote a bit of flash last week. This is all good.

So, how did I get back into a writing routine? I tried several things, some more successful than others.

First, I tried to write during The Babe's naptime. Worked better in theory, because The Babe refused to sleep on her own and would start awake every time I tried to open my laptop. In the last few months this has gotten better, and now I mostly get about half an hour to an hour of writing time most days. So, this is definitely something to try, especially if your kid is a good sleeper and you're not too tired to actually write. (Sometimes you need a nap just as bad as the baby.)

Second, I tried to get my husband to watch the baby for an hour every night so I could write. This, too, proved better in theory. Something always came up and I felt guilty for prioritising writing over family time or chores or whatever. I could also hear the baby through the closed door and usually caved if she was being very fussy.

Third, I decided that I needed to get away from home altogether to get anything done, so every weekend I'd get my laptop and head over to the library or a coffee shop for a few hours of uninterrupted writing time while the baby hung out with her daddy. This was also a good strategy and something I will be doing regularly in the future.

Fourth, and this one is a double-edged sword, I'm trying to sneak in some writing after The Babe is asleep for the night. That's actually when I'm writing this post. The trouble is that my own sleep gets cut short, so it's not ideal, and I tend to get carried away and stay up until after midnight if the writing's rolling along nicely.

My advice to new parents with writerly ambitions is to grab any writing time when you can, where you can, even if it's just fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes a day adds up to almost two hours a week, which isn't too shabby. You can also do a lot of planning and thinking while hanging out at the playground or washing dishes, which saves you time when you're writing. Find what works for you. And most important of all, be kind to yourself. Writing might have to take a backseat for a while. Sometimes life just happens. Writing might be a priority, but it's not your only priority, and it will always be there even if you need to take some time off.


Sep 24, 2018

Reading the Classics: The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust

The Proust Project is nearing completion, finally! I actually finished The Captive/The Fugitive in January and due to severe sleep deprivation at the time my memories are not exactly in 3D surround sound so bear with me if I get some things mixed up. . .

 The Captive was the first volume of In Search of Lost Time to be published after Proust's death, and boy, does it show. I've grumbled that Proust could have used an editor before, but with these volumes the passages of gorgeous description and witty insights into the human condition were even fewer and farther between. It doesn't help that as the volumes deal with themes of possessiveness and jealousy and Marcel's love/hate relationship with Albertine, the whininess quotient goes throught the roof. Oh, the drama!

Marcel spends the first book obsessing over whether Albertine is cheating on him with her lesbian lovers and alternitively whining about how bored he is with her. Proust then unceremoniously offs Albertine (spoiler alert, I guess?), and the next book is spent wallowing in the loss of this Great Love (Hah!). When compared with the description of the loss of Marcel's grandmother earlier in the story, the loss of Albertine feels quite hollow, but I'm not sure if that's intentional. Something about the structure feels off, too. After hundreds of pages of very slow going, suddenly a whole bunch of major plot events are shoved into a few paragraphs like an afterthought.

I've pretty much loathed Marcel from very early on, but if you didn't despise him before, this volume will send you over the edge with his casual misogynism and the crap he puts Albertine through.  (That passive-aggressive letter!) I was genuinely happy that Albertine finally left and put us all out of our miseries. All in all Proust's view of love is pretty depressing, all lust and obsession and pathological jealousy.

There is a positive, though. I finally understand the structure Proust uses. (Yes, there is a structure!) He takes a scene and then expands on it in the way memories work, via free association. I felt that this was the easiest to spot in the bit where Marcel looks at his sleeping lover and contemplates his situation. I'll have to try this approach for myself soon, maybe in a short story.

Only one more volume to go! I might actually finish this year, after seven years!

Sep 17, 2018

What I Learned from Slush-Reading for the Nova Writing Competition

Ready to hear about slush reading? Okay. Here's a bit about the competition first: Nova is an annual Finnish-language writing competition held by the Turku Science Fiction Society, the Finnish Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and the Science Fiction Culture Cabinet at the University of Turku.  It's aimed at new writers (pros are excluded, so if you've won the Atorox award, the Portti writing competition, or published a novel-length work, you're no longer eligible).

I've submitted stories for the competition for quite a few years, like most Finnish spec fic writers. I won second place in 2016, so that's probably why I got asked to slush read. Like most slush reading, this was an unpaid position, so why donate your precious time, you might ask? Well, first of all, it's fun! You get to meet interesting people and it's nice to give back when you can, since a smallish group of fandom actives work hard to make things like Finncon possible, host reading and writing groups, and arrange genre-flavoured writing courses, for example. Second of all, it's a golden opportunity to see the editor's side of things and learn how to stand out from the slush pile.

So how much work is involved? This year there were 134 entries, 24 of which made it into the judges' pile. One thing I like about the Nova competition is that a part of the prize is a critique from the judges. The finalists who don't make it into the top ten get a critique from the slush readers, so we  each did three or four critiques in addition to the reading part. 134 stories sounds like a lot, but the page limit for the competition is twenty and maybe half the entries ranged from a few pages to eight or ten pages, so while I did read for several hours each week, it wasn't that bad.

For those interested in the process, the way we went about it was to score every short story on technique (grammar, punctuation, voice, style, etc.) and storytelling (structure, plotting, theme, character, world-building and so forth) and then worked out an overall score from one to five. The four of us also wrote a short critique that summed up the story and touched on any special merits or major flaws; these made writing the finalists' critiques a few months later a lot easier, and it was very instructive to compare and contrast what the other slush readers and the judges had written about the stories.

And what did I learn? What made a story stand out from the slush pile?

For me the major factor was originality. There were many competently written stories that felt quite familiar to someone who's read widely in the genre. Most failed to make the cut in the end. Personally, I'll overlook a certain number of technical issues for an idea that feels fresh. Before you despair, it's not impossible to come up with an original idea; for many of these stories all it would have taken was an extra half hour of plotting before starting to write. First, take the time to ask yourself what the reader expects. If you just write the idea as it first comes to you, your mind is probably trying to take you down familiar paths, but if you take a moment to think about the major turning points you might come up with something else entirely. And it doesn't have to be something completely new: a fresh spin on an old trope is original, too. Second, do try to utilise more than one idea, you'll add more depth and originality.

Once you've got that sorted, here are some recurring issues I noticed that writers entering the competition might want to watch out for:

  • Do pay attention to the submission guidelines and proper story formatting. If you're not sure how to use quotation marks in dialogue, grab any book from your bookshelf and check. And paragraph breaks are nice, too. Don't use a weird font in a tiny size with single spacing. It's really annoying to read. Even if you don't get disqualified, do you really want to piss off the slush reader even before she's read one word of your story?
  • Are you sure you've submitted a complete story? A surprisingly large number of entries read like novel excerpts or a part of a larger whole, usually stopping at the first plot point. If it's too long for the competition when you finish, check that you've started the story when the story actually begins. 
  • Nova is a speculative fiction writing competition. Is the speculative element integral to your story? If the speculative element could be easily deleted and the story would still work fine, it's probably not integral enough. And no, "it was all a dream" and "it was all in his/her head" don't count.
  • Do have somebody read your story before you send it in. You'll definitely improve your chances with a few thoughtful edits.
  • Style preferences are subjective, but going very over the top will almost always work against you. Overly elaborate, flowery prose is heavy to read and can easily slip into the unintentionally comical. I think that this is a common phase that new writers go through before paring back and finding their own voice
Okay, there's my two cents, I hope you found them useful. Congratulations to all of this year's winners and to everyone else, thanks for entering and letting us read your stories. If you didn't make it this year, please don't get discouraged. No story is ever wasted, and success at competitions is definitely not everything. The best thing you can do is keep writing and try to get feedback on your stories, you'll get there eventually. 

I won't go into specifics concerning any single competition entry here, but if you have a general question, I'll be happy to answer if I can.

Sep 11, 2018

Writerly Progress Report

Wow, it's been quite a while since I last wrote a blog post! What can I say, this whole child-rearing thing? Kind of time consuming. Who'd have thought? 

Well, fortunately The Babe is now officially a toddler, and I'm starting to get more writing time again, but the last year hasn't been a total loss, writing-wise. An old piece in Finnish "Kylmempi kuin jää" (Colder than Ice) earned an Atorox nomination, which was fantastic, and I was on my first writing panel talking about writing and publishing short stories in a foreign language at Joctocon. (A nice, cozy event that wasn't at all terrifying even for somebody as nervous about public speaking as I am.)

 Around Easter I did some slush reading for the 2018 Nova writing competition. I know everyone says slush reading is an important learning experience for a writer, but they're absolutely right. I learned a lot, and it was fun. I absolutely recommend it. If you're worried about the commitment and time management like I was, a competition is pretty much an ideal solution, because it's a limited amount of work (134 short stories in this case, over about two months) with a clear deadline, and you get extra XP for time invested since there are other slush readers and you get to compare notes (there were four of us for the Nova competition). I'll do a post about the experience  later on in more detail if you want to know more.

I also took part in a very useful writing workshop hosted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Finland. It was given by Reetta Vuokko-Syrjänen, a very talented writer (she won second place in the 2017 Portti writing competition, among other things) who is also a fantastic teacher and a very nice person, so do grab the chance to learn from her if you can. The workshop was titled "The Story is Broken," and Reetta did a very brave thing: instead of going the expected theory + exercise route, she shared an old story of hers from back from when she was starting out, something that clearly showed huge potential but illustrated a lot of those not-quite-rookie mistakes that the intermediate writer will run into. She then took a problem based learning type approach to fixing those issues, and she rewrote the story, showing us the power of editing in action. And the best thing? I actually managed to edit a story that's been giving me trouble all year and sent it to the Portti competition.

I haven't written much else, only a few flash fiction pieces, but I've been thinking about a book project more and more, so a lot of world-building and prep work. 

And I've read a lot. Yes, even the Proust Project is nearing completion, only one volume to go! I've burned through the backlog of books in my TBR pile and also explored some books with nontraditional structures. I'm especially into Japanese authors at the moment. (If you don't know about Osamu Dazai, go read No Longer Human right now, it's mind-blowing!)

So, that's what I've been up to. I love fall, it always feels like a time of new beginnings and possibilities, so I'm going to take full advantage of all that positive energy. Hope you're having a nice productive September, too.