karenmiller (karenmiller) wrote,

A Blight of Mages, and other stuff

So, my brain is recovering from its latest pounding. I've had a couple of days of down time, done some errands, 5 loads of washing, emptied the back shed ready for its demolition (I'm getting a proper writing/research studio separate from the house. So exciting. I desperately need to draw a line between work space and home space, after several years of working around the clock, 7 days a week, inside my living space. More on that as the project unfolds!) and basically getting ready to fly to the UK on Saturday. Last night I clocked a whopping 10 hours of sleep and let me say, it was glorious. Haven't had a good long whack of sleep since I can't remember when. And thank God, Wilson was smart enough not to try waking me up! We still got to the park for his walk, so he didn't miss out. *g*

Today is catch up on mail and outline the next Rogue Agent novel day. Most of the plot is worked out, but I have to transfer handwritten notes to the computer. Then I get to start writing it. Wheeee! So looking forward to this one.

I'll also quickly make mention of a writer for whom I have so much respect, not only because she tells a bloody great yarn, but because she is one of the  most sensible, practical and thoughtful writers in the business today. Her name is Michelle Sagara, she also writes as Michelle West, and this is her lj:msagara . Like so many women writers in this game, she is woefully under-publicised. So here's my plug for Michelle, who makes me so proud to be a writer in the spec fic game.

Final comment before I dive behind a cut for long musings on the experience of finishing A Blight of Mages -- don't know about you, but I really enjoy watching The Biggest Loser. For many, many reasons. The current season is fascinating, they've shaken up the format (and I think it's working well) and they're spending some time highlighting a few of the contestants and the struggles they've had in their lives. Today my heart is broken by Ada's story. When she was very small, she and her brother were in a paddling pool. Their parents walked away to get a towel, and when they came back, Ada's little brother had drowned. The parents blame Ada, and have spent her whole life belittling and denigrating her, going so far as to say they wish she'd died instead of her brother. Ada's cultural background is strongly patriarchal, and women are consistently brutalised and devalued. Hearing Ada talk about her experience, watching her confront the reality of her pain and the damage done to her, was very difficult. But also, having Jillian articulate to Ada what is apparent to any viewer, that she was raised in an abusive environment, was a real light bulb moment. I hope Ada goes on to have a fabulously successful life, and I hope that her courage in sharing that story means that more women in similarly abusive circumstances find the courage and the strength to change their lives too.

Okay, so about writing A Blight of Mages.

Writing The Innocent Mage was a very tough road, but mainly that was because I'd never finished  a big fantasy novel before and I doubted myself every step of the way. In the end, though, I did manage to finish it and the rest, as they say, is history. Following that, I then wrote another bunch of novels, and while each one was a challenge in its own way I never really struggled with any of them. I started to really believe in myself, notwithstanding the inevitable wobblies and moments that are part and parcel of this game.

A Blight of Mages turned into a whole different beast. But even though it's not entirely finished -- I have the post copy edit polish to come -- I seem to have recovered my balance, and have learned a bunch of things, which I'll share with you. They're a big hodgy podgy, so bear with me!

First thing that happened was, I hit a brick wall. I started Blight of Mages at the beginning of this year, having come off a marathon writing stint that involved doing 9 novels in 2 years. I knew I was tired, but I didn't really understand how tired I truly was, until I came to a screeching halt 50,000 words into Blight. I had to take a deep breath and stop. So I did. I put it aside, and went o/s for a few weeks to the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention (which was great) and then Book Expo America (which is also great), and basically had a physical recharge.

But when I got back from the US, it quickly became apparent that something was very wrong. I'd noticed some odd health things just before and while I was away -- I was getting very clumsy, fumbling things, and my hair went all odd and strawlike. My insides -- kind of seized up. When I got back and looked at the work I'd done on Blight, I noticed there were logic gaps in the narrative, weird info repetitions, stuff that just wasn't normal for me even in the messy first draft phase. Then I noticed that I was freezing cold all the time, no matter how much heat I pumped into the house, or what jumpers I wore. Again, really not like me. Then two things started happening -- my hair started falling out in double handfuls, and I started not being able to think straight. Couldn't write coherent sentences. Couldn't remember what I'd just written, even after re-reading it. Couldn't concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time, or write more than a couple of hundred words a day. This, from the person who was comfortable with a 4-5000 word a day output.

To say that I freaked out is putting it mildly. But still I didn't twig to what was going on. I didn't put the pieces together. Then I had a routine blood test and my thyroid hormone reading came back borderline low. And the light bulb went on. My GP dismissed my concerns because technically I was 'normal'. I knew I wasn't. I did some research and found out that all my symptoms were classic under-active thyroid markers. Further research led me to learn of something called Wilson's Thyroid Syndrome, which is a cluster of problems tied in with a low performing thyroid that has yet to collapse completely. After my investigations I started taking some dietary supplements (essential fatty acids, Coenzyme Q10 and iodine) and had my blood retested nearly 3 weeks later, seeing a different GP. I'd improved my thyroid function to mid-range normal in that time. The new GP confirmed all the research I'd done myself. And now I'm feeling fine and dandy, all the problems have stopped, and I'm back to being myself. Can I convey the desperate sense of relief I feel for that? Nope, not sure I can.

The moral of the story? If you think something's hinky with your health? Trust your gut. Check it out. And don't take 'you're fine' for an answer if every instinct you have is telling you that you're not. Push it, find another doctor, do your own research. Keep on until you get the answers.

I was able to finish Blight, despite having lost a lot of time to being unwell. (In addition to the catastrophic thyroid issues, I had a sinus infection that took 4 courses of antibiotics to clear up, 2 bad colds and a gastric attack). I lost close to 4 months of work time this year due to being unwell -- a real pain in the arse! Thank God for editors who are supportive and understanding.

However ... above and beyond these external roadblocks to getting Blight written, something else was going on. And it wasn't until last week, walking Wilson in the park, that I had a light bulb moment over it. Now, in retrospect, this all seems terribly obvious and really, I feel like a bit of a nong confessing that I didn't see what was going on at the time. Perhaps when you're in the middle of something you can't see it clearly.

Here's what I realised, and I throw it out there for anyone who is now, or thinks one day they might, write a prequel to an existing story, where the bare bones of the story are already known.

Generally speaking, the engine driving a narrative (in both the writing and the reading) is the What question. What is happening, and what's going to happen next? How is this story going to end? When you're writing the first draft of that story, capturing it in words for the first time when it's still tentative and nebulous in your brain, one of the things that keeps you going is the What Happens Next impulse. And that's what keeps the pages turning for the reader when the book is done and dusted.

In a prequel, what happens is that the What has been answered. We already know the bones of the story. So the narrative drive for a linked prequel isn't What Happens Next, but How and Why did the story we already know happen?

And that, let me tell you, adds a whole new dimension to the process. It dilutes the narrative energy, it dulls the excitement in a way, or at least it did for me, and I so was not expecting it. So I spent almost the entire writing process doubting myself again, second-guessing myself, worrying and stressing and fretting that this was a steaming pile of horse crap, that it was boring, that there was no point to it. And on top of the hassles with my health, it came close to completely ruining the fun of writing. Not even some fabulously positive and encouraging early feedback from the inimitable Glenda Larke helped to allay my utter conviction that I'd lost what little mojo I possess. Poor Glenda!

I think I'm past that now. More beta reader feedback is positive. And just finishing the book helped to boost my confidence too, because there were moments when I absolutely doubted I could even do that much. And while there is a bit of work still to do, I'm now cautiously optimistic that Blight won't be an utter train wreck.

Why am I tell you all this? Because I know there are writers who read this blog, and I wanted to share what turned into quite a traumatic writing experience in the hopes that if there are folk out there who are in the midst of their own battles, their own struggles with self-doubt and so forth, then they can know they're not alone. That even someone who has now written 15 novels can run into a brick wall.

What I've learned, in spectacular fashion, is that every book really is its own journey. And that in this game, what's come before doesn't necessarily translate into a road map for what will come next. Because this time around, for me, everything I thought I knew got thrown out of the window. In an odd way, I was a novice writer all over again.

Thinking about it, all this trauma is probably the Universe's way of getting me ready for what I face next year, which is the beginning of writing The Tarnished Crown Quintet, the most ambitious project I've ever attempted. I will be pushed and extended and challenged in ways I never have been before. I really am leaping off a cliff with this, trusting that somehow I'll land at the bottom on my feet, in one piece, stronger and better for the experience. I'm equal parts terrified and exhilarated by the prospect.

Wish me luck!
Tags: blight of mages, life
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