The Nepalese Cheese Man: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Welcome to Tuesday – it’s time to be accountable again.

This last week has meant adjustment. There was decidedly less drama this week, so that certainly made everything easier. Whew!

1. Unfortunately, for me because I’m no morning person, my schedule has necessarily been adjusted to accomodate – *gulp* – morning writing. Yes, my writing bretheren, I am now getting up at 5:30a.m. to write.

While it is generally painful, it is more painful not to write…and that’s exactly what was happening these past few weeks. Bronwen has given up naps and therefore keboshed my writing time. I admit to a certain level of irritation at this.

But! Apparently morning writing is a successful alternative. I’ve added a chapter and a half since last week. I’m planning on finishing the rough draft of this puppy in two months TWO MONTHS! Note it, dear blog readers! Hold me accountable! Rough Draft Done in Two Months!!!

2. This past weekend was also writers group weekend and I have to say that I learn something about myself as a writer every month because of these beautiful people.

But first, a seeming tangent:

Do you guys watch House Hunters International? I do. I greatly enjoy learning about different parts of the world and especially the challenges facing those who choose to live somewhere other than their hometown/country.

There was recently an episode of HHI in which a French man decided to pack everything up and head to Nepal to become a cheese maker. My first thought was: Really? Then, when he confessed to not having a great deal of experience in cheese and that he’d been something like a computer engineer (I can’t remember now what he actually did), I thought: Really?

Then they started showing the ‘houses.’ By ‘houses’ I mean shacks along the side of rutted dirt roads where running water was a luxury. And I thought: REALLY? And by now I’m convinced this guy is bat-shit crazy. He knows nothing about cheese, nothing about the area, nothing about whatever else he might need to know about!


I watched the whole show with bated breath, dying to see the six month update where the show follows up and sees how folks are doing.

Six month update: The guy was doing great. He’d revamped the shacks, hired local workers, developed a small factory, had a stable for the animals, storage for the cheeses, equipment to make the cheeses, and vehicles to take the cheese into town to sell. He managed to harness the water, smooth out the road leading to his land, and looked way better groomed than I thought he could’ve managed.

It struck me: the Nepalese cheese man had a vision. And in order for me to buy into it, he had to show me. His talking about it was not good enough. All his talking and explaining did was convince me how dead wrong he was.

Cut to writers group.

I submitted a revised first chapter. It’s about ten pages and is a change in tone and style from the stuff the group had read before. This change was instigated based on other changes I made during NaNoWriMo.

The reactions to the change were not mixed. Every single person had the same issue – solutions varied, but the central issue remained the same. Namely, the tone and structure of the new piece was inconsistant with the tone and structure of the chapters the group had read before. They looked at me as if I were nuts, as if I were some Frenchman who was doing a perfectly good job in computer science but suddenly wanted to be a Nepalese fromagier.

I admit, my initial reaction was very defensive.

It took me a little while to work out why I was so incredibly bothered by their reaction. I soooo wanted them to roll with the new digs. And it honestly surprised me when they seemed so confused or worried about the new pages. Normally I can judge what the issues are going to be.

Then it occured to me: I’m 100 pages ahead of these guys. (120 if you count this past week’s work.) I’ve made changes they haven’t seen or even heard of. I switched the structure quite a bit. I did a 180 on them and expected them to turn when they’d been reading on another axis entirely.

I was frustrated when they recommended changes I’d already made. A little evil part of me went: Why the hell are they being so obtuse? Can’t they just trust my genius?

Well, no Nepalese Cheese Man Jenny, they can’t.

Here’s why:
1. They have no access to your brain.
2. They have no access to the pages you’ve written/rewritten – they have only the context you’ve given them.
3. And you’re misunderstanding them anyway. They’re only pointing out shit you’ve already acknowledged needs to be corrected.

Here’s what to take away from that: it’s not enough to tell people your vision – whether as a writer or a Nepalese cheese man. For people to buy into your work, you have to do the work well and show them. Otherwise they’ll argue against you, convinced that you’re dead wrong. You’re defensive. You’re obtuse.

Show don’t tell counts in life as well as fiction. Remember that.

Now…what did you guys learn? Get a lot of work done? (Yes, Fleur…I know about your rough draft. Punk. Whom I love. But…punk.)

Random Post of Awesome: Braggin’ on a Buddy!: Traci Cizek Sackett in High Contrast Review!

Awww. I held Traci’s babies when they were teeny-tiny – now I (and you, dear blog readers!) get to read her story-babies too. And if you wanna know how much fun this gal is, just check out the title of her piece, just published in High Contrast Review:

Maggot Pie

There’s such a terrific energy to this piece. The images are magical. I think they picked just the right photo to go with it.

Congrats, Traci!

Myth, History, and Belief Systems

Ancient myths precede histories and were once thought to be histories. They were thought to be true accounts of important matters.” ~Margaret Atwood, from “Burning Bushes” in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

I’m part of a couple reading groups on Goodreads. Unfortunately, I can never seem to keep up with the novels the groups are reading because I’m so darn distractable. *shiny!* However, these smart folks have directed me to books that I would not otherwise have read. For example, right now I’ve started reading a book called Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset – winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It’s a monster of a book. I’m barely halfway through part one of the trilogy.

But I’m far enough in that I see something very interesting going on.

Brief overview of the book: Kristin takes place in 14th century Norway and it’s about a girl/young woman who enters into an unwise marriage against her parent’s consent.

(What on earth does this have to do with Margaret Atwood? Just hold on a second, I’ll get there.)

In one of the opening sequences, Kristin is confronted by the spectre of a dwarf (a fairy in Norwegian terms). It’s an interesting section in which Kristin is almost tempted away from her father and the group she’s traveling with. Her father ‘saves’ her at the last moment, and she tells him what she saw. Dad immediately freaks out. She’s not allowed to leave his side, nor is she allowed to tell her mother – a deeply religious woman who would flip if she thought her daughter was being threatened by evil sprites.

While reading this turn of events I was caught by the idea that, in the past, the myths are real. Magic is real. The reason we read fantasies and science fiction and speculative fiction (whatever you want to call it) is partly because we don’t see this stuff in real life…anymore. Science has kind of ripped the mystery away, but once upon a time – and not a very long ago time either – we used to believe that magic was real. Miracles could happen.

Undset certainly caught the right historical tone – and it made the history more believeable than any description of medieval churches ever could. For the first time reading a historical piece, I felt the very real terror of the *beyond.*

In “Burning Bushes,” an essay in In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood, she states there are questions that myths answer:
1. Where did the world come from?
2. Where did people come from?
3. Where did OUR people come from?
4. Why do bad things happen to good people?
5. Why do good things happen to bad people?
6. What is right behavior?
7. What do the gods/God want?
8. What are the right relationships between men and women?

And that’s why myths have hung around so long.

I would add that a good story – any story – has characters who behave in accordance with a mythos. Whether you base the story’s belief system on science, with its “seven step” scientific process, or if it is based more on a religious backbone or if it’s based on the idea that Nothing exists past this life doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is something (nothing is something too) because real human behavior revolves around the answers to the above questions. You can’t write something believable without knowing what those answers are for your world.

Margaret Atwood, from what I’ve read, has taken great pains in order to answer these questions for herself. In Handmaid’s Tale, you can see the evolution of the society via a belief system. Oryx and Crake is almost a listed, direct answer to the questions she poses in “Burning Bushes.”

And so far in Kristin Lavransdatter, these questions are being addressed as well.  

Do you have answers to these questions for your stories? Have you read any books that answer these questions particularly well?


In honor of the fact that I’ll be spending the day moving, today’s prompt is change.

Your character walks into a room. What he/she sees in that room will change their life forever.


New Short Story from Our Mentor!

Hello Atwood fans.

For those of you interested, The New Yorker has published a new short story by Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress.” If you dig stories with dark women…this one’s for you.

Let us know what you think!

World Building vs. Character Building

Today I’m going to follow up on my earlier post about The Year of the Flood. I had talked about Atwood’s world building, which is immersive and draws me right in. She doesn’t info dump, but rather, she gives little glimpses to draw you in. It’s like the world-building peep show. On the second page of the book, one of the main characters, Toby, is looking out at her surroundings:

“She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hairbrushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate…There’s a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it’s gone now.

She doesn’t bother explaining things. She raises questions, “What’s a lumirose? Why is there an arm?” and moves on. For a reader like me, it grabs me right off. I get curious. So, why do I find The Year of the Flood easy to put down? The characters and plot don’t grab me.

Most of the book is focused on flashback. We start with a post-apocalyptic setting, and the most fun parts of post-apocalyptic fiction are wandering the world, seeing the carnage, and watching the characters overcome the wasteland’s challenges. Flashback takes all of the fun out of it. We start with everybody being dead. Then, it goes back years to a storyline that is, honestly, pretty dry. We see both characters’ lives before the flood, and for both, it involves little of their own conflict and a lot of them observing other people.

The questions I come to for characters are: What’s at stake? What do they stand to gain or lose? What’s important to them? Or, put another way: Why should I care? I know both of the main characters survived the disaster. Everybody they had conflicts with before is presumed dead, so there are no reasons to assume that the big adversary from a decade earlier is about to resurface, especially since she spends hardly any time in the present once she gets past the first few pages. I made it to page 215 and I’m bored with the flashbacks. The past isn’t interesting unless it affects the present, and there have only been maybe 15 of those 215 pages that have anything to do with the present. Those 15 pages are mostly world-building pages, too. The closest the present has come to conflict is that one of the characters had a run in with some wild pigs and might be running low on food some time in the next few months. That’s fine as conflict to get you warmed up in the beginning, but when does it get bigger and more urgent than that?

To sum up: The Year of the Flood has left me high and dry. I want to care, but I don’t. I like the world, but an interesting world isn’t enough to get me through 400+ pages.

Make It Stop: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

You’d think after last week that there was no more drama to be had. You’d think wrong! But it is Tuesday, so it’s time to be accountable for writing stuff.

1. I did finish a chapter of The Line. It was like pulling teeth for every single word, but the chapter got written! The struggle I’m having with writing is a schedule shift. The soon-to-be four year old doesn’t nap anymore. Pfft! There went my hour-a-day time. Without it, finding time has been a chore. After discussions with Shane, we have fleshed out a new schedule – it’s not every day, but should buy enough time to get stuff down on paper…and let me out of the house. So cheers for that.

2. Almost done with a new short story. I’m diggin’ it and that’s what counts. Just gotta write out the last scene and ta-da! I’ll be finished with that.

But, damn, this was a doozy of a week.

My grandma is still in the ICU with weird tubes and stuff stuck all over. She’s doing better, but it’s still stressful.

Last Thursday night, the car’s fuel pump gave out on Shane on his way home. I’ve been minus a ride for a few days while the mechanics get parts and whatnot. Stuck, stuck, stuck. (P.S. Thank you to Ali and John – who kept me entertained while I waited in the car for the tow truck – long story on how I was the one who wound up waiting – on a really dark, kinda spooky stretch of road. They endured the phone cutting off and me talking to AAA, who needed directions to the spooky stretch of road.)

The Big Doozy: And Sunday night (read: super-early Monday morning – 3:00 a.m.) Shane tripped on something in the bathroom and clonked his head on the bathtub. He managed to knock himself out and received a b*tch of a cut above his right eye…that bled a lot. After keeping him awake and doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do, I took him to the Urgent Care in the later morning. He needed ten stitches.

Yeah, the week isn’t starting off too swell.

And to top it off – insult to injury! – I’ll probably have jury duty tomorrow. Everyone keep your fingers crossed that when I call the jury line tonight I won’t have to go in.


Whether you call it speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or some other term, one thing all these genres have in common is exaggeration.

In Atwood’s fiction, she takes certain traits of people, society, nature… and blows it up beyond real life. You end up with gene splicing run amok, super hippies, and Handmaids. In The Year of the Flood, there’s even Painball. The best way to describe Painball is by reminding you of the idea of Roman gladiators duking it out in the arena. Switch it to contestants who are exclusively criminals and a no-holds-barred, out-for-eviseration, setting and you have Painball.

This week, I challenge you to exaggerate. Let’s do some world building. Think of an aspect of modern society that gets on your nerves (road rage, political extremists, people who say they are allergic to certain foods, but who are really just picky eaters). Now, list out all the details you can think of about that thing. Pick an aspect or two and exaggerate. You have a society where this one thing is a key part of the culture/politics/daily life. What happens when the whole country revolves around road rage?

Write it out. Don’t just make it big, make it larger than life. There’s your world.

Happy writing!

World Building

I’m working my way through Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. The interesting thing to look at is how she built her world.

On one hand, she explains very little. She tosses the reader right into the midst of rakunks and a post-apocalyptic world. It’s not until much later that she explains about the genetic manipulation that created the menagerie of unusual critters. I haven’t gotten to the explanation about the apocalypse yet, and I’m half way through the book. Atwood is confident enough to think you’ll just go along for the ride, which is cool.

On the other hand, there’s oodles of extra stuff. She includes sermons from one of the characters and religious hymns throughout. It adds texture. Or, it’s intended to. At first, I read them. Now I skip them. For my money, I’m just not into it. But, then I’m reminded of something Neil Gaiman said about Fragile Things when people said they weren’t into the poetry. To paraphrase, he said, “Don’t think of it as a book of short stories and poetry. Think of it as a book of short stories with free poems added in.” Based on my impression of Atwood, I think she’d be on the same page as Gaiman.

World building is such a fine balance. Do it right, and people get sucked in. Miss the mark, and…

So far, I’m kind of on the fence about The Year of the Flood. More commentary on that later.

Doing Stuff: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Oh, yeah! It’s Tuesday – time to see what we’ve accomplished this past week.

I’ve gotta say: not much. My grandmother became very, very ill this past week and that entailed multiple cross-country phone calls, getting my mother to the airport, lots of stressing, and just general unrest in life. I’m sure you guys have had those weeks too. I hope everyone reading this had a great week and nothing too bad happened. Much love to all y’all.

However, it wasn’t a total bust of week, for all that. I managed to get a couple pages written on my big manuscript and fiddled with a short story that I haven’t quite finished – I don’t know if it’s the peripheral stress going on right now, or if it’s the story itself that I’m struggling with. Only time and work will tell.

I did meet up with Iver this week and, as always, he gave me great feedback on a story I sent him. And let me tell you (I’m currently working with a group and Iver separately as a writing partner/buddy/mentor): having someone to read your work and thoroughly go over it is a real gift. I love all of my groupies! Between Iver’s mark up and the group’s critique, this should turn out pretty good. So that makes me happy.

And that’s my week. I hope you guys got some stuff done too! Let me know.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Go hug someone you love.