On Real-World Worldbuilding: STYLE

When I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People, I not only gave each chapter a title but specifically styled them in a way that both paid homage to previous works and told the reader what they could expect from this one: “Meredith writes about her worst fear” and “Anne gives Meredith advice” are echoes of Anne of Green Gables’ “Mrs. Rachel Lynde is surprised” and Little Women’s “Meg goes to Vanity Fair,” and The Biographies of Ordinary People is also an episodic, domestic narrative about artistically ambitious girls growing into adulthood.

(Quick side note: if you have not yet read The Annotated Little Women, which I did not realize existed until this year and just finished reading, GET YOURSELF A COPY. It includes so much information on how Louisa May Alcott structured her writing life, combined income-earning projects with passion projects, and balanced both writing and work— because she served as a Civil War Nurse — and writing and caretaking.* I found it hugely inspiring.)

When I started thinking about NEXT BOOK, I had a particular phrase in mind that I wanted to use as the first chapter title: The Leftover Christmas Family.

Except whenever I thought about starting the book with the words “The Leftover Christmas Family,” I kept hearing them read in Neil Gaiman’s voice, and the characters at the center of the narrative were suddenly twenty years younger. They were still themselves, thank goodness, which means I’ve done a solid job of creating them, but they were just… approaching the end of adolescence instead of the beginning of middle age.

Which, okay, I could definitely write a book about teenagers, and I could even have the adult characters reflect on the events of their youth, the way Gaiman does in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, if I wanted to pull the middle-age thing in there too.

But even if that story included all of the events I currently plan to include in this story, even if the plot were exactly the same, the style of the book wouldn’t help me address the central theme of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

That’s a middle-age conflict, after all (thanks, Erik Erikson). The adolescent version is more like LACK OF AGENCY vs. POSSIBILITY. Both of them are, in a sense, about being limited by external structures (family, money, time, societal expectations and prejudices, obligations to school/work) but one of them suggests that there’s a whole big world waiting for you as soon as you come of age, and the other… well, that’s what NEXT BOOK is going to be about.

So I thought really hard about what I wanted this book to be, and I also tried to make space for my mind to solve the problem without my thinking about it (MORE ON THIS NEXT WEEK), and then I realized that I could have one of the characters say the words “leftover Christmas family” instead, or think them, or maybe just describe the feeling of being left behind.

The point is that I recognized that making this choice (to use chapter titles, to use this specific phrase as the first chapter title) would lead me down a stylistic path that would not serve this story, so I threw out that choice and started looking for better ones.

I swear it made more sense in my head.

Tomorrow I’m going to address the big problem at the center of NEXT BOOK that I haven’t figured out yet.**

*According to The Annotated Little Women, Lizzie Alcott was going to be the family caretaker and remain at home as the Alcott parents aged. Louisa was going to be an independent spinster-by-choice and career woman. Then Lizzie died, and Louisa had to step into the caretaking role. Louisa also raised May Alcott Nieriker’s daughter Lulu after May died, because Lulu’s father was too busy traveling for work. (Yes, seriously.)

**No, not the problem of whether the setting should be in a real or ficticious city. That’s actually a small problem.

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On Real-World Worldbuilding: TIME PERIOD

Yesterday I shared some thoughts on worldbuilding the NEXT BOOK, including whether it should take place in a specific location or a generalized/fictionalized place.

Today I’m going to ask myself the same question, only this time it’s about time period.

I already know that NEXT BOOK takes place in the present. But… which present?

Is this a generalized present where people have smartphones and use Wikipedia and Uber but don’t, like, reference President Trump?

Or is this a very specific present that did in fact exist, with all of its political concerns, viral articles, memes, etc.?

(I mean, I don’t really think I’m going to put memes in the book, but you get the idea.)

Setting the story in a generalized present might help the reader to feel like the events of the story — or the emotions of the story and the choices the characters make during the story, since the events themselves are a bit… unreal* — could also happen to them. Or also apply to them. Or also reflect the questions they’re currently asking themselves.

The generalized present also gives the story a bit more longevity before it starts to feel like something that happened in the past, though that happens to all stories eventually. (They may have updated Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret to include contemporary menstrual products,** but the Pre-Teen Sensations still don’t use YouTube or smartphones, still have the freedom to roam the neighborhood by themselves, and still wish they were named “Mavis.”)

The specific present, on the other hand, lets me get specific. The current outline has the story beginning at Christmas, for example; if I were to go ahead and say “okay, this is Christmas 2018,” I could include references to real-world events like the government shutdown and the viral Millennial burnout essay — both of which happened after I started plotting this story, but which fit all-too-neatly into the themes of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

Of course, the trouble with setting a story in the specific present if the present itself is literally at the same time you are writing the story is that you might have to rewrite the story if a world-changing event happens that you didn’t include in your outline. This happened in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004-2016; I had to rework the planned ending thanks to the way 2016 actually ended.

The other trouble with setting a story in a specific present has to do with the huge lag time between writing and publication. I am very likely to indie-publish NEXT BOOK, which’ll cut at least a year off that lag, but even if I began my story at Christmas 2018 I would be unlikely to publish the story until Christmas 2019 at the earliest — which would be a nice parallel, and still within the range of recent past to feel contemporary, but once you start thinking about publishing around Christmas 2020 the whole thing becomes… well, it starts to feel like a historical piece.

Why should people in 2020 care about what characters thought in 2018? We’ll have had so much more to care about since then.

On the other hand, I could always create a generalized present in which the government is shut down, or in which there is another type of political or economic situation that makes everyone feel stuck, like they wish they were in a better world but they have to live in the one they’ve got now, which is also kind of DYING or is at least scheduled to become significantly more uninhabitable over the next 100-200 years, and they can’t figure out how to change or save it.

That’s where the story starts.

It also starts at Christmas, or at least I’m pretty sure it does.

And that’s where we’ll start tomorrow — with a discussion of style, and how the words you choose affect how you tell the story. ❤️

*NEXT BOOK may be set in the real world — at least in the beginning — but it’ll be shelved with the SF&F.

**While this choice was ostensibly made to avoid misleading young readers into thinking that menstruation involved belts, it weakens the book’s integrity as a piece of historical fiction — which, of course, is what all books eventually become.

Two articles about the writing and self-publishing process

This post was originally sent to my TinyLetter subscribers.

It’s been over a month since The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004–2016 launched, and since then I have gone on a mini-book tour, taught two classes related to writing and self-publishing (with more to come), spent a long weekend at Disneyland, and, most recently, published two articles about the writing and self-publishing process.

The first article is at Longreads, and it’s titled How the Self-Publishing Industry Changed, Between My First and Second Novels. If you’re interested in numbers, earnings, expenses, and (for obvious reasons) politics, you’ll want to go read that one.

If you’re more interested in the process of writing, you should read my Draft Journal essay titled The Five Times I Tried Writing My Novel. It took me roughly two years to write the draft that became The Biographies of Ordinary People, but that was not my first attempt at telling this story.

It’s interesting to think about the ways in which “all the books that were not Biographies” changed, over the years. My first draft, which I started (and quickly abandoned) when I was in college, focused entirely on a college-aged woman — there wasn’t any family in it, just ambition.

In the version I started drafting while I was a receptionist in Washington, DC, the Meredith character was named Therese Gorrell, and she had been born in the rural Midwest — she wasn’t a transplant from a larger city, like I had been as a child. (In Biographies, the Grubers’ move is a natural starting point for the story; not to misquote Tolstoy, but you could easily say that Vol. 1 is “a stranger comes to town” and Vol. 2 is “a woman goes on a journey.”)

In the version I worked on in Los Angeles, which was the most fully-formed of any of the drafts, there were four Grubers: Rosemary, Jack, Meredith, and Natalie. That was the draft that was too much like autobiography, and it wasn’t until I added Jackie to the story that it began to come together as a novel instead of a retelling of my own childhood. I created Jackie to force a different set of family dynamics and ensure I wouldn’t just write what I’d grown up with, but she ended up becoming this character that I intensely admire (and in some ways envy), and she allowed me the ability to branch the whole “how do ordinary people make art” question down a different path.

There’s also a version where Meredith is grown up and is asking Rosemary questions about her life, and the whole thing is a framing device for flashbacks to both the 1990s and the 1960s, and I’m really glad I got bored with that idea because I’m already bored just explaining it to you. (Plus I would have had to do a lot of research about the ’60s.)

So. What I mean to say is that you should read the Longreads piece and the Draft Journal piece, and be grateful that you got the current version of The Biographies of Ordinary People, instead of all the other versions I discarded along the way.

Photo by Dana Marin on Unsplash.

On Revising My Novel While Reading Meg Howrey’s ‘The Wanderers,’ or: Books Are Supposed to Make You Think and Feel, Right?

I read Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers last week. To say that it was a book that made me forget the rest of the world existed might be a little on the nose, if you know what the story’s about, but I haven’t been this fully absorbed by a book in… I don’t even know how long.

I’ve loved a lot of books this year; Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, Ali Smith’s Autumn, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn stand out as some of my favorites. But in many cases I’m studying the language along with the story, which means I am both in the book and outside of it.

In The Wanderers‘ case I was all in.

I empathized with all of the characters—important, in a character-driven book—but felt the strongest pull towards Yoshi and Helen; with Helen, in particular, I felt like Howrey was writing truths about my own life that I was not yet ready to admit to myself.

But hey, it’s been a week. So here we go.


Mild spoilers, if you want to skip the rest of this post: Helen is an astronaut. She values her ability to perform complex tasks on command and knows that doing what she loves—that is, going to space—depends on her being able to function at top capacity at all times. This means discipline of body, of mind, and of emotions both internal and projected. Which is to say she cannot be misperceived, especially in public. Astronauts represent things, after all.

Helen is proud of her ability to maintain this discipline and geniality. The discipline, at least, comes naturally. If she had not become an astronaut she would have found another job that utilized similar skills.

I put the book down partway through—because I am also disciplined, and it was time to go to bed—and thought about how remarkable it was to be reading this story about a woman who has chosen a career that comes with certain requirements and constraints, is honest about what she has given up in order to work within those constraints, and admits that the choice is worth it.

It was also remarkable to finish the book and understand that Howrey had written a story about characters growing and changing and learning from each other without having to give up their discipline. This isn’t a story about uptight astronauts learning how to love before floating around in zero-gee soap-and-ketchup bubbles because it’s okay to be messy now, aren’t you glad we learned that?  (Not saying being messy is bad. Saying that’s the cliché.) This is a story of highly qualified people who do know how to love, who share an intense experience that teaches them how to be more specific with their love and with themselves.


I made the burndown chart for The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 today. It’s divided into the following sections:

  • Revisions
  • Rewrites
  • Checks
  • Permissions
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Prep
  • Reviews
  • Publicity
  • Awards
  • Promos
  • Ads
  • Appearances
  • Longterm
  • Maybe

For the book to publish in May 2018, I need to get Revisions through Prep done by March, in addition to my writing and editing work at The Billfold and my work for other freelance clients.

I write about 40,000 freelance words a month and edit 40 pieces, which might not require the same discipline as an astronaut but certainly requires me to function at top capacity at all times. (Or, at least, never drop below 85%.) Part of me thinks this isn’t anything worth remarking on; don’t all careers assume that we’ll show up on time, ready to go?

But other people, when I mention what I do, tend to remark on it. Generally along the lines of “I don’t know how you do it.”

I do it the same way that Helen does it: discipline, skill, compartmentalization. (And, by this point, years of practice.)

I also know what I am giving up. Not necessarily to have this career, but definitely to do all of this and get The Biographies of Ordinary People ready for publication. To do all of this, get Biographies ready, and prioritize the exercise-nutrition-sleep required to do all of this and get Biographies ready means a lot of saying no—whether it’s out loud, or internally before anyone has even asked.

This is where I’m supposed to write something about how I feel a little badly, the way the characters in The Wanderers occasionally remember to say that they feel a little badly, about this choice.

But the truth is that I want it more than anything. I have structured my entire life to have this choice. My job is to be good enough to get to keep making this choice for as long as I can.


Now I do feel badly, because I’ve written something that is both true and could be perceived as callous or careerist or lacking love, and part of what I do—you knew I was going to bring this up—involves not being misperceived.

This is both the literal definition of writing and the more contemporary definition of not being disliked. I know that telling you something true about myself is actually more likely to make us feel connected to each other, but I also know that admitting that I avoid some types of typical everyday stuff in order to focus more fully on my work might make you feel disconnected from me.

I could try to reconnect us by saying that we all make choices like this; we choose what we want to move towards and we choose what we want to move away from. (Sometimes we wish we could move towards or away from something, but there are circumstances or obstacles preventing us.) But that runs the risk of being doubly misperceived; in this case, the assumption that I’m saying my choices are better.

They’re not. I’m writing this because I’m putting a lot of intense focus on my novel right now, so I’m very interested in the choices I’m making.

I’m also writing this because I know that other people like to read about how writers work, and this is how I do it.

Mostly I’m writing this because I can’t get The Wanderers out of my head.


Back to the revisions. The reason that I am fairly sure I can complete everything on that list by March—assuming I keep the health stats up—is because this part of the writing process is mostly about discipline. It’s about me thinking critically about my writing: Is it clear?  Is every word the best possible choice, within some kind of 80:20 Pareto Principle? (Knowing which words for sure need to be the best possible choice is also part of revision.) Do the characters move in understandable ways through the narrative?

The most difficult part of that checklist will be REWRITES, which is the list of scenes I need to either rewrite in full or create from scratch. That requires emotion and sense memory and a presence of mind that is very different from the part of me that thinks “is this person a minister or a pastor?”

Which means that for the next several months, I have to be ready to jump on REWRITES on the days that I feel most emotionally capable of doing them. I already know that I’ll only have certain times free to do REWRITES (and everything else on the list), and I’ve blocked those times off on my calendar the way you’re supposed to, and I’ve already told multiple people that I won’t be available on certain weekend days because I need them, a month from now, for Biographies.

This is part of what it means to structure your life to be able to make the choices I am currently making (and knowing what you’re giving up in the process, like being less available to family, friends, the non-profit at which I tutor, etc.).

I know this isn’t the only way to revise a book. But it’s the way I’ve figured out how to revise mine. This is the second book revision process I’ve ever done, and it’s different from a lot of other writers’ first because of the way Biographies is published and second because all writers are different. We aren’t all Helens, or Pearls, or Berts, or any of the other characters that have ever helped me understand myself.

(That’s a terrible way to wrap up this post, though. Let’s revise it.)

I do want to be more specific with my love, and with myself, and with my work. I could tell you, if I weren’t coming to the end of this post, about the time I did an intensive class with Anne Bogart and learned how very specific a person could be when telling a story—and how much work it takes. (And how much love.)

And specificity requires choice, which means saying no to something in order to say yes to something else.

And now I will admit, honestly, that I do feel regret—or, more specifically, disappointment that I cannot be everything to everyone, that I am failing both them and my ideal version of myself—about the things I say no to. Right in this moment, as I write this, of course I do. ❤️

Photo credit: Ian D. Keating, CC BY 2.0.

This Week in Self-Publishing: My To-Do List

Patreon revenue: $6,909

Book revenue: $899.96

Book sales: 196 ebooks, 134 paperbacks

Book expenses: $4,239.85

Money spent this week: $96.53 (on awards fees and shipping for the IPPYs and the Washington State Book Awards)


So I just want to run down all the stuff, really quickly, because I have a lot of work to do and the news is THE NEWS. You know.


The Missoula reading at Fact & Fiction went very well! There was music, there was reading, and then Marian Call led a short Q&A afterwards. (I’m always glad when there’s someone to MC the Q&A. It goes so much better than when I try to do it myself, because if nobody has any questions the MC can always ask one of their own, and that usually prompts an audience member to think of one.)

I don’t have Missoula sales to announce because they didn’t do a consignment agreement (where I provided the books and they sold them and we split the money). They ordered the books outright from IngramSpark, so I don’t know how many of my Ingram sales were from Missoula. I’d guess the same number that I’ve been selling at my other readings: 10–15ish.


I submitted Biographies to the IPPYs and the Washington State Book Awards this week. I opened up the Ben Franklin awards page and thought “$225? Seriously?” and then I wondered if I really needed to submit to that award.

I’m getting more hesitant to spend money on this book, now that it’s out in the world and I can see what it’s doing. I’m definitely going to spend some money on book promos like Bargain Booksy and Reading Deals and etc.—because we’ve already proven that those earn back their investments—but I’ve already submit to five awards, and maybe I can be done?

OR WOULD THIS BE THE ONE AWARD I WOULD ACTUALLY WIN AND I MISSED MY CHANCE BECAUSE I’M TOO CHEAP TO SPEND $225?

Right. Moving on.


Right now Nicole Dieker Dot Com redirects to an animated GIF of a kitten falling over, which is adorable, but it also means that I am in the process of building a new website.

I am at the very beginning of the process, and since I am doing this while simultaneously helping The Billfold with its website migration, I know just how much work this is going to take.

But I want this website so badly. I feel like it’s the next step in my professional process: gettin’ a site that has all my stuff in one place, and migrating these posts over to it, and linking to my freelance work and myHugo House classes, and telling everyone to sign up for my TinyLetter.

So I gotta build this site. And get new headshots. MY HAIR ISN’T EVEN THAT COLOR ANYMORE.


The trouble with getting new headshots is that I feel like I haven’t made a genuine smile since Trump got elected.


So my current order of operations is:

  1. Do the website
  2. Do this month’s Bargain Booksy promo
  3. Start sending out thoughtful & interesting TinyLetters that include links to this week’s This Week in Self-Publishing post as well as my best freelance stuff from the week, interesting links I’ve read, upcoming appearances, you know how TinyLetters work
  4. Submit Biographies Vol. 1 to other promo sites
  5. Appear at Readerfest in Seattle on September 9—YES, THAT IS MY NEXT PUBLIC THING, LET’S HANG
  6. Focus fully on revising Biographies Vol. 2 (I have several weekends blocked off for this)

CAN WE DO IT ALL?

PROBABLY YES. I am good at doing a lot of things.

But wow this will take a lot of work, in addition to all of my freelance work and checking in with whatever’s happened in the world since I began writing this post. ❤


I ALSO WANT TO DEEP-CLEAN MY APARTMENT BECAUSE I’VE BEEN AWAY FROM HOME FOR THE PAST TWO WEEKENDS AND EVEN THOUGH I’VE BEEN WIPING THE SINK DOWN THERE IS STILL DUST COLLECTING EVERYWHERE.