Tag Archives: writing

A new year – 2019

I tend to think that a list of New-Year’s resolutions will end up being a depressing list of things I didn’t do in twelve month’s time. So I’m keeping my goals for this year general: Finish editing my novel (The Heartstone of Tehnareach). Continue improving my health. Read more. Write some short stories. Finish more things. Support my loved ones. I’ve started the year with a spreadsheet to keep track so that at the end of each month I can review and update my goals without feeling like I have no idea what the heck I actually did.

Miriah Hetherington

My helpers, Teddy and Thea

PBeM rpg – lessons learned

(Trigger warning: references to rape in fiction)

Over the past year I’ve written many versions of this blog post. Some angry, some sad, some self-righteous, some self-loathing. Reflective writing is like that I guess, personal and emotional. The last day of 2018 seems an appropriate time to get it off my chest.

Some background: PBeM rpg – play by email roleplaying game – is a method for collaborative story telling where each player writes dialog and description for their own character(s), and shares it in email ‘posts’ with ‘tags’ for other players to fill in. Part of the attraction is that – unlike stand-alone fiction – as a player there is an immediate (small) audience for everything you write. Emphasis is on the created story, so first-draft-quality prose is acceptable. PBeM rpg can be the perfect venue for writers who want to write just for fun, who don’t relish the stress of Writing-With-Intent-To-Publish.

A year-and-a-half ago a friend from my old Dragon Age PBeM rpg invited me to join a Romulan ship, part of a multi-duty-station Star Trek PBeM rpg. I have always loved Star Trek, and the prospect of roleplaying a character in a technologically ultra-advanced matriarchal warrior culture appealed to me. Plus I really wanted to write with this friend. So I joined.

I discovered that one aspect of PBeM rpg that appeals to certain players is the freedom to ‘write what you know.’ Unfortunately that meant a twenty-year rpg history of characters and ongoing background saturated in twentieth-century rape culture. According to Star Trek ‘cannon’ male and female Romulans are completely equal, Romulans are xenophobic and keep slaves, and a Romulan’s honor is more precious than his or her life. And yet on that far-future Romulan ship, slavery was obviously modeled on the slavery of Africans in North America – for no logical world-building (cultural, economic, political) reasons. Female officers were assumed to get advanced positions because of who they had sex with, and male officers were expected to rape slaves for recreation – especially the irresistible human-hybrid female slaves genetically engineered to be addicted to sex.

Roleplay a red shirt in a veteran player’s fantasy… or quit.

I wish I could say that I recognized what I had walked into right away and quit immediately. But it took about four months before all of that underlying misogyny was revealed. My friend kept reassuring me, and I trusted her. Meanwhile I had become invested in the new adventure plot that I was trying to help her push forward. In the end the worst part of the entire experience, by far, was the feeling that my friend betrayed me – that she was complicit all along.

By the time I quit the Romulan ship, I had joined another (human-based) ship in the multi-duty-station group. The Game Master (GM) promised it would be ‘safe’ to stay and complete what turned out to be a truly interesting, fun, and immersive adventure. I developed a character that I deeply enjoyed roleplaying. But then the next adventure comprised two short away missions. The first planet was run by men trying to solve survival-threatening sabotage while the women – type-cast as petty, selfish, and stupid – worked against them. The second planet experienced the same sabotage but was run by women – horny farmgirls – because a virus had killed most men and rendered the remaining men effeminate. The GM defended these plots as ‘reverse sexism for humor’ when I complained and refused to participate. Soon after the GM announced a joint plot with the Romulan ship (where it turns out he has been the functional GM for years). At that point I quit the group completely.

I will note that there are other active duty-stations in that group, and I have reason to believe they are not like the two I played with. I have purposely refrained from identifying the group publicly, but if you’re reading this and want to know, contact me. miriah(at)live(dot)com

Soon after I joined a different PBeM rpg group for five months: Starbase 118. That group has a comprehensive player handbook with enforceable guidelines to prevent sexism and racism, and actively promotes inclusivity. I loved that community – it’s over twenty years old and has grown and matured with the times. I endorse Starbase 118 whole-heartedly. But I found the posting structure (rewriting the scene from each character’s point of view in script format) cumbersome. Plus I was already feeling burnt-out when I started.

So, here’s what I learned.

– It probably takes three to five months of active play to find out what a PBeM rpg group is really like.

– If the group doesn’t have a comprehensive inclusivity policy with clear implementation guidelines and you identify as female, pretend to be male for the first six months.

– Set your expectations for social awareness low. As a science fiction and fantasy writer and aspiring author, I actively try to be aware of the way marginalized people are depicted in fiction, and do my best to portray people who are other than me (cis-white) with sensitivity. I research, I try to listen. I don’t assume that I understand some aspect of an other’s reality because my understanding feels right to me. For some PBeM rpg players, that is way more effort than they are willing to give.

– Not everyone is open to examining their world view and stretching their writing beyond what they know. Before calling out a PBeM rpg player or GM’s sexism etc., ask if they want feedback. Even if they says yes, assume they will get angry and defensive. Most PBeM rpg players are cis white.

– Just because ‘Star Trek’ is on the webpage, don’t assume the stories written by that PBeM rpg group embody Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a hopeful future.

He’s the GM, not a Social Justice Warrior

In spite of all that PBeM rpg can be really fun when all the players are dedicated to creating an inclusive adventure. The weird thing is, a part of me wishes I could still play. Another part of me is glad to focus my efforts on my own, stand-alone fiction.

New Year Goals: 2017

Microsoft main campus trail January 2017

Along the trail when walking my dog this morning

Today was a clear, sunny January day in Western Washington. The kind of day that makes you run out in your short sleeves and sandals.

Then you run back in the house, because it’s bloody 27˚F outside and everything is frozen. You put on a warm coat, gloves, and socks. Then since this is Western Washington you put your sandals back on and go outside.

January 1st whooshed past, smelling of popcorn optimism for the new year. So this is the semi-obligatory goals-for-the-new-year blog post.

My writing goals for 2017:

Goal 1: Get my novel ready to submit to agents.
This will be occupying most of my writing time. Although I finished my zero/first draft last June, the next draft of that novel is going very slowly. It’s only about one-quarter done, and I am far from happy with the beginning. I think the problem is that this novel, the characters, the plot, etc., crystalized in my head as I wrote it.

So my plan is to finish the current/second draft by April, and get two or three beta readers to give me some feedback while I take a break. Then another rewrite. After that more beta readers and hopefully ship it off to agents by the end of the year.

Goal 2: Attend a writing workshop in June.
I applied to Taos Toolbox. Chances are slim that I’ll get it, since acceptance is audition-based, and there will be lots of competition because the instructors are amazing and the special guests are famous. So my back-up plan after I’m rejected is to register for Cascade Workshop which is local, run by some fabulous people, and they always have great (though less famous) presenters.

One important thing I learned from applying unsuccessfully, three years in a row, to Clarion West workshop is that dreaming and hoping to attend a prestigious workshop is crazy-making, wasted energy. I should be writing. So for Taos, I edited the first 10k words of my novel to the best of my ability, then sent it off with my application, and went back to writing.

Goal 3: Write and submit three new short stories.
My plan is to do this during my break between the current re-write of my novel, and the next re-write. At the moment, I only have three short stories circulating to markets.

Goal 4: Critique other writers’ work on a weekly basis.
I’m a member of two critique groups, but sometimes they go on hiatus and I get out of practice. But I can take advantage of other critique forums where I can both supply helpful feedback and learn about craft.

Goal 5: Keep track of the books I read.
And write reviews. Because reviews make a difference.

Goal 6: Keep track of my non-writing goals and activities.
This is a new one.
I have other things going on in my life besides writing, including raising two teenagers. Life happens, and when I inevitably get slammed by other responsibilities it’s way too easy to beat myself up because I haven’t met my writing goals.

Villain POV and editing

I can’t believe it’s already the end of September. My eldest daughter got married one month ago, and my twins have been back in school for three weeks.

Writing the second draft of my novel (which I’m calling the first draft since I’m calling the novel-like pile of words I completed my zero draft) is going much slower than I expected. I think this is because when I wrote that initial draft I did more “discovery” writing than I thought – the story crystalized as I wrote it.

It took me two-and-a-half weeks to write/rewrite the first 5000 words in which I introduce two of the three POV characters, their goal, the world, and foreshadow the third main character.

I got stuck when I started writing/rewriting the next chapter of the novel in which I introduce the third POV character, his goal, another part of the world, and the main villain. I realized I had no idea how this third hero would interact with the villain initially, before he is aware of their conflict. In my first/zero draft I worked out the what/why/how for the villain later, but not so much in the beginning.

My solution: Summarize the novel from the villain’s point of view.

That brought so much of the story into focus for me. It also clarified the motivations for another character… the one who betrays my main characters.

Miriah Hetherington maple leaves

It’s Autumn! Teddy gets to help rake leaves.

Zero to First Draft

I mentioned in my “Still here and blogging” post that I finished the zero draft of my novel on 5 June 2016. Let me just pause to relish that statement…

Woo-hoo! I finished the zero draft of my novel!

All the best writing advice says that it’s a good idea to let that zero draft cool off until the writer can muster enough objectivity for the next step which is editing the novel. (Cooled off. Check.)

The next step is to edit that roughly novel-shaped pile of words to the best of my ability. (The following step is recruiting beta readers and other writers for feedback/critique. Then more editing.)

But, where do I start? I had a hard time wrapping my head around the entire 115k words of novel draft. It’s tough to hold the whole slippery thing in my mind all at once. Do I start editing at the beginning? Do I jump around in the middle, using the notes I made to fix the sudden shifts in plot and character motivation and loads of other stuff? I haven’t really seen any writing advice about the nuts and bolts of digging in to a messy zero draft and turning it into a coherent first draft.

So, this is the approach I came up with for editing my zero draft:

First, I read through the zero draft and summarized everything as it is. Including that chapter I knew would have to be thrown out and rewritten the moment I finished it. Mistakes and all, even the first chapter that doesn’t work anymore now that I know exactly how the novel ends. My summary consists of about one sentence per section, so there’s a paragraph for each chapter.

My next step is to write a chapter-by-chapter summary for the novel’s next draft. This will serve as a detailed outline when I begin re-writing and give me a tool for holding the entire novel in my brain at the same time. So far, I’m up to chapter 4 of 18. I hope that the two outlines will serve as a map from where I am to where I want to go.

How do you handle the first revision of your zero-draft?

Barley Thrasher we saw 17 July 2016 near Alchi, Leh district of Ladakh, India

Barley Thresher we saw 17 July 2016 near Alchi, Leh district of Ladakh, India

Still here and blogging (sort-of)

Reasons I have not updated my blog in four months:

1. I was putting all my writing energy into finishing the Novel.
(And on 5 June 2016 I DID finish the 115k-word, zero draft!)

2. End of school year chaos.

3. My husband and I took our twins on a family vacation in northern India for three weeks.

4. The illness I picked up in India came home with me and has been hanging around for one-and-a-half weeks (so far).

5. My oldest daughter is getting married four weeks from now.

More blog posts to come…

Miriah Hetherington visits Tak Thog Gonpa, photo 15 July 2016

Statue at Tak Thog Gonpa, photo taken 15 July 2016

Novel Progress: 75k

Today I passed 75,000 words on the initial draft of my novel. Based on my outline, I think I’m on target to reach “The End” at around 100k words in the middle of May.

Writing a novel is hard. And yes, that’s not a surprise to me. But, still… even when I love the setting and characters, writing about them in the same story day after day… it’s hard.

I’ve been sticking to my plan of not taking any breaks to write sneaky distracting short stories. I admit that I’m toying with the possibility of taking a small break to edit a previously written short story that is set in the world of my novel – so I can submit to an open call.

Lake Quinault Rainforest Writers Retreat

Lake Quinault, 27 February 2016, Rainforest Writers Retreat

In February I got to go to the Rainforest Writer’s retreat, and boost my progress.

I’ll be participating in Camp NaNoWriMo during the month of April, and I’m hoping that will help me keep up my slow but steady pace.

If you are a novel-writer, what was it like to write the first draft of your first novel?