Writing

Grieving A Writing Life

Author K.M. Allan shares some heartfelt thoughts about the writing life in this post. Fellow writers, have any of you experienced a similar trajectory? I know I have!

K.M. Allan

When you start out in the writing community, you’re learning, and part of that process is seeing those before you rise.

Just as you’re entering the query trenches, there are others being lifted out of them with agent representation and publishing deals, and you wait patiently for the day that person will be you.

Before you know it, years have gone by. You’ve been part of the writing community for a long time, helping those who are now the newbie you once were.

Experienced in the query trenches, you’ve seen it all, gotten every rejection type there is: the no answer, the form letter, the good but not good enough. You might have even hit that 100 rejections goal you’d heard other writers talk about but never thought you’d reach because your MS was too good. At least you thought so.

You might have rewritten it since those lofty…

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CMOS, root saw, and Kindle e-reader

The Right Tools for the Job

I’m not much of a consumer, but in the past couple of months, I’ve acquired three items I consider to be tools for specific purposes: a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition), a Silky Gomtaro 240 mm root saw, and a Kindle e-reader.

Chicago Manual of Style
Self-publisher’s tool.

As someone who edits her own writing, I finally decided I need a definitive authority on matters of grammar, punctuation, and usage. Working through beta readers’ comments on my WIP, or trawling through the manuscript before moving on to the publishing stage, I kept encountering questions I couldn’t answer. Should “the” in the name of a pub or bar that begins with that word (as in “The Blue Poppy Pub”) be capitalized when it occurs in the middle of a sentence? What is the correct order of punctuation marks when a word is quoted in dialogue just before a question mark? Example: “What do you mean by ‘a problem’?” I asked.

Trying to find answers on the internet yielded a lot of irrelevant stuff (depending on how I worded the search) as well as contradictory answers. It wasn’t usually obvious how authoritative any specific answer was, either. So I shelled out the nearly $100 (in Canadian dollars, and including shipping) for a copy of CMOS.

And those two example questions? According to CMOS 8.45 “An initial the as part of a name is lowercased in running text, except in the rare case of an initial The in the name of a city.” So it’s “I’ll see you at the Blue Poppy.” And the matter of punctuation after a quoted word within a spoken sentence? It’s explained thus in CMOS 13.30: “Exclamation points, like question marks, are placed just within the set of quotation marks ending the element to which such terminal punctuation belongs.” To be honest, that sentence is pretty murky, but the examples had ‘?” rather than ?'”

Silky Gomtaro Root Saw
Cutting tool. Suckers, look out!
Root saw label

I’ve complained before about shrubs that spread by underground suckers. Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is one of the worst. The little saw intended for cutting sheetrock (gyprock) I’ve been using to cut suckers isn’t up to the job. So I tracked down a saw made for cutting roots. Strangely, Amazon was unable to supply it, but I was able to order one from a farm and garden supplies store in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I still use tools I bought there when I lived in that city more than 30 years ago. I suspect they happened to have one hanging around in old stock, whereas the ‘Zon was affected by “supply chain issues.” I intend to tackle the Oregon grape later this spring, using the new saw judiciously. (It wasn’t cheap, also almost $100 with shipping).

Kindle e-reader
Reading tool.

I’ve resisted for years buying one of these. Until now, I’ve read Kindle ebooks on my tablet, with the Kindle Reader app. But the tablet is fairly heavy and needs frequent recharging. It’s fine for scanning blog posts first thing in the morning, but for reading books, I much prefer my ancient Sony e-reader. It’s light and runs forever on a single charge. But of course it can’t be used for Kindle books. When I realized I was avoiding Kindle books written by fellow indies because my reading instrument was awkward, I caved in and bought a Kindle reader. An hour after it arrived I had activated wi-fi, linked it to my Amazon account, and was reading a book I bought months ago. (But I’m still a bit disturbed by the extent to which Amazon intrudes into my online life. Plus it doesn’t feel as though I own Kindle books the way I own the epubs I buy from the Smashwords store and read on the old Sony reader.)

The right tools for the job do make a difference.

ouroboros dragon black and white

Reading Jung on Alchemy

At some point while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of the Herbert West Series, I realized that alchemy had intruded into the story. It must have originated with the book’s narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. His job requires him to catalogue books about alchemy, and eventually he decides his friend Herbert’s experiences are analogous to a transformation from a base metal into gold.

So I (the writer) had to learn more about alchemy. I was slightly familiar with it from library research for a term paper in my undergrad years, specifically writings of the Romanian historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade. Alchemy had lodged in my mind as “one of those interesting things.” When I decided to read up on alchemy while writing TFoM, I discovered that Carl Gustav Jung had read and written a great deal about it.

I don’t remember buying Alchemical Studies, which is Volume 13 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, but there it was among my books. I decided to read it, even though I had finished writing the Herbert West books long before, and didn’t intend to change them. It took me a couple of months to work my way through it. I read for about 30 minutes to an hour a day. Skimming was definitely out; if I was going to do that, I might as well not have bothered. Every page bristles with footnotes. Some text is in Greek or Latin (always with English translations, fortunately).

So what did I learn, apart from the fact that I’m pretty much ignorant when it comes to psychology? Jung thought the alchemists (those who wrote down their ideas, anyway) experienced the same psychological events as people of his own time, but described them using symbols from religion and mythology. The alchemical process, he said, paralleled what he called the process of individuation, or the fulfillment of one’s potential. This accounts for the multiplicity of alchemical ideas and the apparent contradictions among them. Alchemy wasn’t a secret known to a select company of initiates, but a psychological process.

Jung sums it up thus at the end of the final essay in this volume:

double quotation mark open

Alchemy lost its vital substance when some of the alchemists abandoned the laboratorium for the oratorium, there to befuddle themselves with an ever more nebulous mysticism, while others converted the oratorium into a laboratorium and discovered chemistry. We feel sorry for the former and admire the latter, but no one asks about the fate of the psyche, which thereafter vanished from sight for several hundred years.

Well, I don’t know about that. My own idea (and I’m certainly nowhere near as learned as Jung) is that alchemy was rooted in metalworking, which must have been viewed in prehistory as a near-magical ability overseen by divine forces. The practical process was adopted by thinkers as a metaphor and used to express their ideas about the inner workings of the human mind and spirit. In medieval times, some alchemists worked with metals and other substances, heating and dissolving, combining and distilling. I’m sure many were affected in various physical ways. Mercury, lead, and acids can be toxic. Explosions and fires probably happened regularly in the “laboratorium.” Other alchemists confined themselves to the “oratorium,” and spent their time thinking and writing. But when alchemy fizzled out in the 17th century, psychological ideas certainly didn’t vanish. They found expression in literature, art, and poetry. What about Shakespeare and William Blake? Jung himself says that Goethe’s tragedy Faust (early 1800s) is full of alchemical ideas.

My takeaways from each of the five essays:

  • Commentary on “The Secret of the Golden Flower.” I have to admit, I found this somewhat incomprehensible because of my deficient knowledge of psychology and its terms. The only points I grasped were that a superficial adoption of yoga practices by Europeans was not the correct approach to the wisdom of the east. I kept reminding myself that this essay was written in the 1930s, and wondering exactly what “yoga practices” Jung was referring to.
  • The Visions of Zosimos. Describing the writings of a 3rd-4th century Graeco-Egyptian alchemist and Gnostic mystic, this essay impressed upon me the fact that alchemy in some form or other was written about for nearly two thousand years. Many of the basic concepts and symbols are described here in vivid and dramatic detail. Jung’s interpretations point out similarities among many mythologies and religions, concluding that “although chemistry has nothing to learn from the vision of Zosimos, it is a mine of discovery for modern psychology.”
  • Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, was a 16th century Swiss physician, alchemist, and philosopher. Reading this essay, I detected a measure of respect and admiration by Jung for a fellow countryman and also one for whom “the art of healing” was of great importance. In performing this role, Paracelsus had to reconcile his Christian faith with natural religion, and in this conflict, Jung says, he began groping toward psychology and psychoanalysis.
  • The Spirit Mercurius. Of the five essays, this one impressed me the most. Jung shows the similarities among Mercury/Hermes, Wotan, the devil, Lucifer, and a Christ-analogue, a figure he calls “this many-hued and wily god.” I think that figure was lurking in the background when I wrote the Herbert West books, which is why I found this the most readable of the essays.
  • The Philosophical Tree. The final essay begins with descriptions of tree-like forms in paintings and other artworks created by some of Jung’s patients. I found them fascinating, but admit that I rather lost my way in the subsequent discussions of tree-symbols, snakes, Gnosticism, and the lapis. Jung takes the reader through a bewildering array of writings, symbols, and myths, to conclude with the human need to confront the unconscious and integrate it into the personality.

I suspect some of this book’s substance failed to register in my understanding, but in any case, reading it certainly exposed me to ideas and images I would not have encountered otherwise. The bizarre visions or dreams of Zosimos of Panopolis, for example, in which the dreamer is pierced with a sword and dismembered “in accordance with the rule of harmony.” Or the multiple manifestations and meanings of the Spirit Mercurius. Or Gnosticism (Just say “know”). And a whole list of new-to-me words: antinomian, ithyphallic, hylic, quaternity, ogdoad, chthonic, pleroma, mythologem, nominalism… to name a few.

Even though I don’t intend to learn much more about psychology, I identified a few terms I wished I had understood before I started reading. The idea of “projection,” for example, or “individuation,” or “participation mystique.” Wikipedia rabbit holes beckon!

Given all the above, how worthwhile was my reading of Jung’s essays on alchemy? At the very least, it did not lead me to conclude that I was irresponsible or frivolous in the way I incorporated alchemical ideas and symbols into my fiction. (Of course, it’s pretty hard to tell, given the self-contradicting and incredibly varied ways to describe the process and the ideas behind it, accumulated over a couple of millennia.) I approached alchemy as a process of transformation, whether material, spiritual, or psychological, and I don’t think I went wrong with that.

Squared circle, alchemical symbol
Image source unknown

Featured image from Pixabay

How (Not) to Write a Series

The Herbert West Series began with an obsession-driven novel, The Friendship of Mortals. When that was finished, I didn’t want to say goodbye to the main character so wrote another really long book set in an entirely different location with different supporting characters. I decided that book was too long (230K words, as I recall), so chopped it in two, making an instant trilogy. But the story kept going in my mind, so I whisked the title character to yet another location and reunited him with two characters from the first book. Fine, except now it was no longer a trilogy. I thought “tetralogy” sounded lumpy and angular, and “quartet” was too musical, so I settled on “series.”

Except that suggests a procession of books with no intended conclusion, and my story has a definite conclusion at the end of the fourth book. True series have more uniformity: same genre, same point of view, similar challenges for the main character. Whereas mine started as a kind of horror story and evolved (some would say devolved) into a mere adventure with supernatural and symbolic overtones. And while the pov is always first person, there are 5 (or maybe 6) different narrators. Each one delivers their own experiences with the main character. His name changes at the end of the first book, but references to the previous name are frequent enough (I hope) that the series title isn’t confusing.

Then there’s the numbering. Books 2 and 3 of the series are also Volumes 1 and 2 of what was a single book (Islands of the Gulf) until the big chop.

Are you confused yet?

If not, consider also that the series has a two-book sequel of sorts (well, it will be two books once I publish the second one). And there’s a short story collection, half of which is “spin-off” stories from the series.

The about-to-be-published book (She Who Returns) will be the finale of this saga. Although it takes place half a century after the first book (The Friendship of Mortals), it revisits some of the places, characters, and situations of that book, as a kind of farewell gesture.

In retrospect, I should probably not have called the four books a “series.” Maybe something like “A Herbert West Book” applied to each one would have been enough. And I should have rigorously reduced the middle book and preserved the trilogy.

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Too late now. The books–all 6 and soon to be 7–are what they are.

#bookreview – Tales from the Annexe

I’m chuffed by this lovely review and interview on Liz Gauffreau’s blog.

Elizabeth Gauffreau

Amazon: US UK CA UKAU DE

My Review

As its subtitle indicates, Tales from the Annex is a collection of seven stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West character, followed by seven other tales. 

I went into the collection not having read Driscoll’s Herbert West novels or anything by H.P. Lovecraft. I was very curious to see whether these tales could stand on their own, as well as to gain insight into why this character would inspire a contemporary writer to reanimate him in her own fiction. 

About half-way through the Herbert West section of Tales from the Annex, I sought out and read Lovecraft’s original story: “Herbert West: Reanimator.”  I had my answer: Herbert West is in the literary tradition of the prideful scientist who seeks to conquer death by bringing the dead back to life. Endlessly fascinating! 

After reading the seven Herbert West stories, I was…

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leap over the chasm

Work in Progress Report: On the Brink

My work in progress is getting closer to becoming a completed and published work: She Who Returns: a sequel.

But it’s not quite there. I’m certainly not rushing. In fact, I’m dithering.

The text is finished. I’ve received and considered suggestions from beta-readers. I’ve made all the major plot changes and reduced the word count from 104K to 95K. I’ve trimmed paragraphs, adjusted sentences, and twiddled with words. I’ve even done the backwards read. (That’s when you start at the final sentence and read each one before it until you get to the first sentence. It’s a great way to find typos because you don’t get caught up in the narrative and overlook errors.)

The next steps are: add back and front matter, finalize the covers, write the book description, pick categories and keywords, and format the document for ebook and print. Then upload and publish!

Maybe it’s because I’m trying to avoid those necessary but tedious tasks, but I’m stuck at the point of “just one more read-through.”

Here’s the problem: every time I do the “final” read-through, I make small changes, like swapping “this” for “that,” or deleting a few redundant words. Even a sentence or two. So then I need to do yet another quick read-through just to make sure I haven’t introduced fresh typos or inadvertently deleted something.

Except when I do that “last” read-through, I can’t resist a few more tweaks. Which means I need to do yet another one. Just in case.

Enough, already!

That’s why I’m issuing myself a deadline and posting it here: She Who Returns will be available for pre-order by the end of March.


She Who Returns: a sequel

France Leighton is studying Egyptology at Miskatonic University and planning a return to Egypt via a field school offered by that institution. But France has a talent for rash decisions, and things are complicated by the arrival of her twin half-brothers from England. Edward and Peter are contrasts; one is a rational scientist, the other a dabbler in the occult. But they are equally capable of persuading France to help them with dubious schemes.
France does return to Egypt, if not quite the way she intended. She encounters old friends and new enemies, and challenges rooted in her previous adventures and her family’s complicated history. What begins as an adventure becomes a desperate situation. On the brink of yet another failure, France has to make hard choices that may lead to the ultimate sacrifice.

Words related to writing

WSW Video Chat: We Have Answers!

In January, I wrote a post on WSW asking writers for questions that we could answer in our video chats. We received seven questions in the comments to that post, and in this month’s chat we tackled three of them. In addition, Mark Paxson has added some further thoughts on the question about the rules of marketing, asked by Liz Gauffreau.

You can find the chat HERE

I found Lucinda Clarke’s thoughts about ads, email lists, and newsletters to be especially interesting. They start at about 29:40.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Snips and Scraps

I had no planned post this week. Not enough thoughts on any topic for several hundred words. No splendid photograph to feature for “Silent Sunday.” These assorted thoughts will have to do.

In the garden, old familiars are showing their faces, after a fall and winter of extremes (way too much rain and a brief period of intense cold right after Christmas). But there’s trouble in paradise: hellebores formed buds early in the warm, wet fall. They made it through the cold snap, but now they are blooming on ridiculously short stems. I don’t know if the plants will produce normal bloom stalks this spring. Worse, something has been eating the little stems between flowers and stalks, leaving buds and flowers lying on the ground. I don’t know if the culprits are birds, bugs, or rodents. I’ve never caught them in the act.

Hellebore "Ruby Wine"
Hellebores don’t look this good so far this year. (Photo from spring 2021.)

At the writing desk, the WIP is approaching completion. I’ve absorbed the suggestions of beta readers and incorporated some of them. I’m nearly finished what was intended to be a final read-through, but since I’ve made a few significant tweaks, maybe it’s a “pre-final” one. Something I’ve been doing this time around is making use of Word’s text-to-speech feature. After combing through a chapter, I highlight half a page at a time and listen to Word’s robot voice read it back to me. This is a great way to pick up on overused words and sentences that don’t sound right. After adding, deleting, or moving text while editing, I listen to the sentence or paragraph as a final check.

I’ve noticed some things about that robot voice. Odd pronunciations, for example. The abbreviation “Dr.” sometimes becomes “Drive,” even when it’s attached to a medical person or a professor. “Bow” is always pronounced like the act of bending from the waist, even when it’s a weapon. Commas produce a pregnant pause, but em-dashes have a speeding-up effect. Single-word sentences of two- or three-syllable words or names invariably generate a slight suggestive emphasis on the final syllable. In some contexts, that sounds spot-on, but most of the time it’s just weird. On the whole, though, the robot voice is a helpful tool. And no, I haven’t given her a name.

Finally, I’m doing an accidental re-read. In relation to the WIP, I wanted to check a scene I remembered from a novel read long ago, in which a character has a disturbing experience in the New York Public Library. After a bit of thinking, I remembered the book’s author was Peter Straub, and a bit more thinking retrieved the title: Koko.

I found the scene I wanted, but then I got sucked into reading the book again. It’s been years decades since I first read it, so it’s almost like I never have. It’s a long book–more than 500 pages. I read a few pages at the end of the day, so it will take a while. In the meantime, the TBR pile languishes…

One of the reasons Koko is so long is because Straub makes sure the reader gets to know the main characters really well. It’s almost like a real life experience hanging out with them, hearing the way they talk, and getting into their heads (which isn’t always pleasant). Point of view shifts between scenes, and is always excruciatingly close third person.

I first read this book before I started writing fiction. Reading it now, as a writer, I appreciate Straub’s techniques, which adds to the reading experience.

All right, that’s it for now! Back to the WIP and the springtime garden!

Is anyone else feeling overwhelmed these days? Or running out of blog ideas?