Lessons from writing a sequel.

Last week I got 2,000 words into a sequel to the Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (UNBoaTCfAFHV for short). UNBoaTCfAFHV isn’t close to polished/finished yet, but I figured after nine months of dedicated work on it (after four years of almost no work on it) it could benefit from being shelved for a while.

This is only the second serious first draft I’ve started, and it’s been almost seven years since the last one. I don’t like dealing with the messy, inevitable crappiness of first drafts, so I rarely start them. But the ideas I have are so strong and I can’t stop thinking about them—even if I don’t know where they’ll lead.

When I first started writing it, the ideas and the words flowed relatively easily, which made me think that perhaps the rest of the draft would be just like that: 1,500 words, rough but workable, in only a couple of hours. Maybe I could do that every day and have a complete first draft in a couple months! I thought.

Yeah…. no.

I tried again a few days later, and squeezed out 500 words of choppy prose, one-dimensional characters, robotic dialog, and melodramatic events. How could something be so beautiful in my head and then turn out so poorly when I try to wrap words around it? It’s like that Ecce Homo painting in Spain that was ruined by a well-intentioned amateur artist back in 2012.

But I have to remind myself that the same thing happened when I finished the first draft of the original. It was “103,680 words of plot holes, inconsistent characterization, telling (not showing), awkward dialog, and just plain bad writing,” I wrote after finishing it at 4:00 in the morning. I wondered if I’d ever be able to wade through it.

And it took four years, but I did, and was surprised at how pleased I was with the result.

Rewriting is a huge task; don’t get me wrong. But the nice thing about rewriting (at least, in my experience) is that the more you do it, the clearer your story’s direction becomes. I allow myself to become overwhelmed with the task as a whole: rewriting ENTIRE CHAPTERS? But writing them the first time through was hard enough already! etc. But taking it little by little, allowing the story to show itself, made the task manageable. And, hey, sometimes rewriting flows easily, too.

In other news, just in the last hour an email showed up in my inbox from my friend (a different one this time), with my UNBoaTCfAFHV Draft 3 and her comments attached. Huzzah, supportive writer friends! I look forward to reading her perspective.

A little help from my friends.

I spent much of last week visiting my friends from college, one of whom was the one who gave me those helpful comments on my draft back in January. We had a ton of fun, caught up on the last six years of each other’s lives, made good food, played board games and card games and a D&D one-shot (I was a human rogue), watched one of my friends start playing Breath of the Wild (the local Target had seven Switches in stock. Seven!), and talked a lot about writing and reading. Book recommendations flew. I brought (the finished!) Draft 3 on a flash drive to be passed around. I’m a little nervous about the revisions this time around because I let myself be just a wee bit more vulnerable. They say vulnerability makes one’s writing better, but it’s also terrifying. I await critiques.

In the meantime, a few ideas for a sequel have been bouncing around my head (which is kind of a surprise, but a nice one), so perhaps while I take a break from Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” I can get started on that. Maybe it won’t take six years to get to a presentable draft this time.

A side note: I’m currently reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik at my friend’s recommendation. I’m only a few chapters in (maybe 11 or 12) but I’m totally hooked on the story and setting. I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding. It’s also one of my greatest weaknesses.

Quick update on progress.

I accomplished a lot in the past week but I’m kind of in a rush, so just a few quick things:

  • I went back to the Celtic music session yesterday with my accordion and did a lot better (though still not amazing; but hey, practice really works!).
  • I may have a lead on a harp teacher, or a harp community, at least!
  • I have a passable third draft! Just need to find time to get down to the copy shop and have it printed and spiral-bound.

Accordion disappointments.

Last Tuesday night I excitedly and painstakingly transcribed the chords for the extended version of Kass’s theme I got all excited about a few weeks ago. It was 11:00 and I have neighbors, so I didn’t pull out my actual accordion; I just used a crappy keyboard from when I was a kid with the volume turned way down to confirm them. I’d had trouble in transcribing it previously, but discovered that I had just been failing to recognize diminished chords. Once I got those in there, I thought I had a pretty faithful transcription.

And then Wednesday morning I pulled my accordion out and made a horrible discovery.

My accordion does not play diminished chords on the left hand.

It has six bass rows—counterbass, bass, major, minor, dominant 7th… but whatever the sixth row is, it’s not diminished. (I think it may be augmented?) Based on my limited knowledge and preliminary Internet research, this seems to be nonstandard. That row is supposed to be diminished chords. I can’t even fudge a diminished chord with another key’s dominant 7th since my accordion’s dominant 7th bass buttons play the root.

I’ll have to ask about this when I take it in. Unless a reader with accordion knowledge happens upon this blog and has an idea of what’s going on here?

Facing my suckiness.

I took a leap today and brought my accordion to a local Celtic music session that welcomes beginners, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

Everyone was friendly, but as soon as the music started I found myself staring at the most eighth notes I’ve ever seen in my life (this group seems to like very fast jigs and reels). I ended up not playing most of the songs, and leading one very awkward rendition of “The Ash Grove” that I kept forgetting was in G, not C. My sight-reading is crap—and let’s face it, my accordion technique has gotten SUPER rusty.

I spent most of the session with alternating feelings of determination and immense shame that I’m not as good at my instrument (instruments, actually—I’m not particularly good at any of them) as I want to be. I tried to avoid wallowing in the fear that I’m destined for mediocrity. (That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.) At any rate, I was pretty embarrassed at how much I couldn’t do.

And yet, at the end, people came up to me and expressed hope that I’d return, and that they’d be able to hear me play more. Bless them. Now I have an accordion case full of sheet music to practice before the next session in two weeks.

And then I’ll call the accordion repair guy, promise! I just need the accordion for another month or so. Hopefully it won’t deteriorate any further till then… but it did last forty years in a garage before it came into my hands.

Meanwhile I need to tend to my novel. I depart to visit my friends in less than a month, and those rewrites ain’t gonna… rewrite… themselves.

Busy, apparently.

Oof, school kicked my butt this past week. A six-page paper plus a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation plus mandatory discussion all due the same day. And that’s just in one of my two classes.

I was out of town visiting family for most of the last week, which is always good for stepping away and reevaluating how you’re doing life. At times I found myself worrying about “wasted potential”—wondering if I could be doing something amazing if I just hadn’t watched so much TV as a kid, or had eaten a better diet growing up, or just tried harder. Such thinking isn’t terribly productive, though, and eventually I decided to stop worrying and think about what I want to do with the days ahead. Being out and about tore me away from the Internet for long stretches of time, which I realize has made me a generally happier person. I read too much news anyway, and news is overwhelmingly negative and largely about things outside my control. Spending less time with TV and video games was good for me, too. I can’t see myself ever saying “I’m sure glad I spent my entire summer consuming content in front of a screen.”

Now that I have a bit more breathing room before my next big assignment is due (well, kind of; there’s a 10-page paper due next Wednesday) I’m going to make sure I take time this week to pick up and delve into the stuff I want to be doing. (And call that accordion repair guy, for reals!)

A side note: On the trip to visit my relatives I took a couple of paperbacks for airplane reading: Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens and Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13,* and while I enjoyed both (or at least the first half, in the case of the 432-page Good Omens, which I haven’t yet finished), I’m still partial to middle-grade fantasy. I have to constantly quell the fear that this affinity is a sign of stunted development (more wasted potential!), but that doesn’t stop me from visiting that section of the public library every time I’m there. Also, I’ll read anything by Eva Ibbotson. She might be my favorite author ever. Island of the Aunts made me cry.

Here’s some relevant Neil Gaiman from a 2013 Guardian column that accurately reflects everything I believe about libraries and children’s literature:

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

*It’s about a pure-hearted boy raised by horrible stepparents whose destiny lies in the magical place accessible only through a secret portal in King’s Cross station. If that sounds familiar, note that The Secret of Platform 13 was published in 1994 and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. When asked about the striking similarities, Eva Ibbotson reportedly said that she’d like to shake J. K. Rowling’s hand, and added, “I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”

Summer “vacation.”

For me the first day or two of summer vacation has always brought a mild sense of panic. There’s a bunch of stuff I should be doing and even more that I could be doing. I only have nine weeks left, aaagggghh!

And then I get frustrated and fatigued at the giant cloud of vague options. And then I get reflective. Is productivity per se really my goal? And that just makes me panic more. And that’s why my summers that lack external structure tend to be supremely unproductive.

I should also mention that I am in graduate school (online) and I double down on classes in the summer in hopes of graduating in a reasonable amount of time. I’ve also got quite a few family commitments this week, so I’ll be focusing on those and schoolwork first.

Although: extended version of Kass’s theme! It sounds so gooood! I need to call the accordion repair guy ASAP.

Excuses, excuses.

The other day I was talking to my friend and expressed some mild frustration with myself. I don’t tend to dive right into things; I circle them from several hundred feet above and pretend I’ll make it down there eventually. The problem is that I tend to actually just keep myself in the same holding pattern for ages.

I’ve been meaning to join a ukulele group; I’ve been meaning to send my accordion in for repair; I’ve been meaning to sign up for a SCBWI critique group in my area. I’ve made baby steps in these directions, but have found convenient reasons to hold back (namely that the music store didn’t call me back; the accordion repair specialist’s workshop was inaccessible at them time due to remodeling; and I missed the most recent regional critique café meeting so I’m waiting around for the next one… which will be in several months). I do like to wallow in complacency, don’t I?

Summer is right around the corner, and I work in public education. That means I have ten weeks of unpaid vacation. I need to make some phone calls and figure out what I’m doing with it.

Cons and cosplay.

I spent this weekend with the aforementioned dear friend/houseguest and had an excellent time exploring different parts of the Bay Area. She’s from the Midwest, so of course we needed to go to the ocean and take a day trip into San Francisco. We also stopped at Fanime/Clockwork Alchemy in San Jose on Saturday to see the cosplayers. Where else can you see Ariel from The Little Mermaid walking down the street casually with Kylo Ren?

I’ve been going to cons with my friends for almost a decade but don’t cosplay too often. When I do it’s never anything too fancy—quite the opposite, actually, given my limited skills with a sewing machine/clay/paint/wig styling. More than once I’ve chosen to cosplay characters whose costumes can be deliberately crappy. (My favorite was in 2012, when my friends and I cosplayed cosplayers from Inspector Spacetime, a thinly veiled parody of Doctor Who from the sitcom Community. It basically consisted of stuff we already had plus maybe $10 of stuff scavenged from Goodwill and Dollar Tree–things like bathrobes and toy sheriff’s badges, and things made of cardboard). But after every con I always come home thinking that I want my next cosplay to be an actual good one.

The idea of having a big summer sewing project is appealing, but I’m doubtful of my abilities and discipline. I’ll think about it. First I’d need to figure out who I even want to dress up as.

Or I could just take my accordion to a con, hang out around the corner from a Zelda cosplayer gathering, and play Kass’s theme.

Accordion, video games, and cleaning.

A dear friend is coming to visit for a few days this week, so I spent much of the past week stressing out about cleaning et cetera. Nothing like an impending houseguest to make you look at your place of residence and realize oh crap, this place is a dump! (It’s not actually that much of a dump. But it does need to be vacuumed.)

So that hasn’t left much time for pursuing creative endeavors (and I’m not expecting to make a whole lot of progress by next week, either). But I did retrieve my old accordion from my parents’ house today.

I started playing accordion in 2010 but stopped in 2012 when I left to live abroad for a few years. Before my departure I took it in to a local accordion shop to have it examined, and while the technician was impressed that it was in such good condition (it had been sitting in a garage for 40 years before it came into my possession) she recommended that it be worked on before being used to any great extent. It would have been several hundred dollars’ worth of repairs* so I put it back in its case and put it in a closet, where it remained until I returned in 2015. Even after that I only pulled it out sporadically, not wanting to cause any more damage until I had the money to spare to fix it up.

Then I started playing Breath of the Wild and heard Kass’s theme, a pleasant little accordion ditty that made me want to stop in the middle of playing and listen to it for a while. And then it made me want to grab an accordion and try to play it by ear.

Video game music has had a big influence on my since I was quite young, actually. I remember thinking the credits theme from Super Mario World was one of the prettiest things I’d ever heard. (And that was back when video game music was still chiptunes that drove my mother up the wall.) When I was in fifth grade and took up clarinet in band I would hang out with my friends after band practice and try to play the ocarina songs from Ocarina of Time. And one of the first songs I learned to play on the accordion was “London 3” from Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. A very large portion of my music library is music from OC ReMix (which I’ve been following/lurking on since 2004) and other video game covers and rearrangements. Despite never having successfully finished Chrono Trigger or any Final Fantasy game, I have a special fondness for the music of Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu.

So Kass’s theme is next on the list, though I really should look into that accordion repair. But right now I need to focus on cleaning the kitchen.

*Still cheaper than getting a new accordion, which run in the thousands of dollars for a well-made one.