Ashe Elton Parker

A Writer of LGBTQ+ Characters in Speculative Fiction

Month: March 2014

When Plotting is Going Well

I used to “pants” (write without planning) every story.

I didn’t complete many stories that way. It didn’t matter how long the story was supposed to be; most of mine are longer than the SFWA definition of 7,500 words, for a short. I write novelettes, novellas, and novels. Mostly novels. And most of them are beyond 40,000 words. I’d frequently hit the halfway point (40k-60k) and fizzle out between there and the three-quarter mark. Because the ideas would fizzle out, and the stress of need another scene to write would block me to the point of abandoning the story.

Then I started reverse outlining incomplete stories I most wanted to complete. Reverse outline cards typically consist of a one or two-sentence summary of the written scene. When I reached the end of the written-out scenes, I’d traditionally outline (do the plot cards before writing the scenes) the rest of the story. I completed a few stories this way.

There were also a couple of stories which I started and abandoned, but which needed full rewrites. Most of the time they had plotting issues. Events happening out of order, periods in the project where I focused on one subplot to the exclusion of every other plot, including the primary one. Stuff like that. These I entirely outlined prior to writing them, and I completed the rewrites. I know now I was able to complete these outlines before writing the stories because I already had almost the entire stories written in some form prior to reorganizing the plot to be workable.

Then I started outlining stories before or as I wrote them. So, I may start, get two scenes; these I’d reverse outline, then add two or three fresh plot cards before writing one scene. Outlines I started before writing began with that pattern. Two or three plot cards per scene written. I completed more stories this way.

When plotting is going well, I find I’m most comfortable working plot cards about ten or twenty cards “ahead” of where I’m writing the scenes from the cards already done. This has been hard to accept, because I’ve been, of course, trying to cling to the RULE that The Outline Must Be Complete Before Beginning Writing. But I reach a certain point in my fresh stories—my speculative fiction stories—where I hit a block in the outline. Usually this block harks back to an earlier point in the outline, and involves an aspect of the story which my subconscious hasn’t presented to my conscious mind. The best way for me to unlock these plot points, I’ve found, is to write out the earlier scene.

So I have a plot card like:

Stirrings Plotcard

This is for Brotherhood A: Stirrings, as you can tell according to character names. The snippet this card covers is on the project page for Stirrings. I would not have been able to write this plot card if I had not worked out already Lorien’s psychology on the wedding, Doéna’s reactions to Lorien’s behavior, and the behind-the-scenes (in my head only) of Necée’s feelings about the situation. I didn’t even know Necée would be this way and why until after I worked out Lorien’s response to the marriage arrangements. I wrote a description of a small portrait of her Lorien received in an information packet, and I can remember thinking at the time, “What if she’s got a sweetheart she’d rather marry?”

That’s all I had on the sweetheart until I included the first scene with Karé, the story’s antagonist, who plots to destroy Lorien’s faith in love and happiness—and Lorien’s standing in Imperial Court. I had no idea just what he’d mean to the story until the moment he introduced himself, and I wouldn’t have had that without first writing the previous scenes out. In writing those scenes out, I learned of the Éecinis, Doéna’s status and standing in the Vénari Court, and the pitfalls he expected in the Imperial Court. Without those, I’d have had nothing to write after the point where Lorien and Doéna arrive at the Imperial Court, at which point I’d have hit my block and been unable to write past if I’d been pantsing the story.

The scenes I’d written gave me the basis for Karé’s presence and conniving nature.

My plot cards have evolved somewhat since then. I now include “dates” on the top margins of the cards, as on this plot card for Degrees of Subtlety:

DoS Plotcard

“2” indicates which plot card this is, which is the second scene in the story. “Arrowroot” is the Point of View character; this story alternates between his and Sweetbriar’s points of view. The “date” is “Fruiting, Rowan 1,” which is the name of the month, day of the week, and which week. I’ve determined, much to my discomfort, the people of Hatu Napor have a 364-day year divided into 13 months of 28 days apiece. Those in the area of the world where Sweetbriar and Arrowroot live have named the months after various natural events which occur throughout the year, and the days after trees to be found in various locales. No year date yet because I haven’t worked out the year-dating system yet, at least not for this hemisphere. I suspect I’ll use something the whole world adheres to, which will most likely have to do with either the appearance or disappearance of the fairies; both events are rather prominent.

The scene summarized includes the snippet I have on DoS’s page. As you can see if you compare the card to the snippet, I didn’t write the scene exactly as described in the card. This was another thing I had to learn, that the scene did not necessarily have to follow the card precisely. Allowing such flexibility enables me to come up with workable scenes which do their jobs. I’ve gotten so flexible I don’t even care if a scene I write matches the plot card which was supposed to inspire it any at all. What I usually write in those unexpected scenes generally serves the story much better than what I’d planned in the plot card. And, if I need, I can later plumb the card for any plot-pertinent info to include in later cards I haven’t yet written.

It bothers me that I’m not completing the outlines before I write the stories, but this is the way my mind works, and, I’ve discovered, I have a tendency to get blocked on plot cards if I’m not writing earlier scenes out. This is why I write ten-to-twenty plot cards ahead of where I’m writing out the scenes. Frequently, I’ll get one or two plot cards and be unable to see just what should happen next. Sometimes letting things percolate in the back of my mind works for moving past such blocks, but more often, I find that if I write out an earlier scene and read through the plot cards between it and the point where I stopped, I’ll come up with a decent idea much, much sooner, and the idea will be much stronger than it would have been if I’d forced myself to outline past the point of when I felt I had to stop.

I occasionally use other methods of plotting, but I won’t go into them here. This post was about my basic Everything Is Going Well plotting method.

Radiation Treatment

This entry is part 31 of 44 in the series Breast Cancer Posts

Radiation treatment for breast cancer is pretty simple. A typical treatment regimen lasts for 6 to 6-1/2 weeks, with a standard dose of radiation for most of the duration, then a period of a few days with a “boost” or additional radiation to finalize the treatment. The patient goes in weekdays for the treatment, and doesn’t go in on holidays, at least where I was getting my treatment. The Huntsman Cancer Institute isn’t open on holidays. Other cancer clinics and hospitals may be.

I didn’t have this. My treatment was 15 days. I had this reduced treatment period because I joined a research study and was randomized into the experimental arm. My treatment consisted of what I’d have been getting had I gone the six-plus weeks, with my boost administered at the same time. I forgot to get information on what substance they were using for my treatment, and though I did think to ask after dosages, I didn’t write it down and didn’t get a chance to before I forgot. I’ll get that information when I see my radiation oncologist in May.

At the Huntsman, cancer treatment involves changing into a gown. Since it was my breast, I removed only my shirt and bra and wrapped the gown around myself. Then a wait in a small waiting room with other female cancer patients (men had their own changing and waiting rooms). When called back to the treatment area, I’d walk up a hall with the technician and stop at a computer to state my name and birthdate, something they have patients do to ensure they have the right one and that they’re thinking clearly. Usually a tech would fetch a warm blanket for me.

Radiation Machine

This is the radiation machine. Its bed/table already has my mold on it, covered by a sheet so I wouldn’t stick to the plastic which held the substance. The part at the top is where the radiation comes from, and there’s a little panel on the bottom end of the machine which extends out, I suppose to “catch” the radiation.

For treatment, I’d climb onto the table, make sure my rump settled against the butt-bump, which is barely visible in the lower right hand corner of the image, and arrange my head, shoulders, and arms as the mold dictates. Once I was basically comfortable, a tech would raise the bed and both would proceed to roll or tug me enough to get me into proper position for the treatment. Once or twice, they had to tape my right arm a bit so no part of it would be in the field of the radiation. The first time, about midway through treatments on the seventh or eighth day, and the last day, they took X-rays to ensure I was in proper position.

If you look at the image, you’ll see the rotational part of the floor, to which the bed is connected. First, the bed would run up into this, putting my head close to the screen on the machine. As this occurred, the top of the machine rotates to the left. I’d usually have to adjust my left arm so it wouldn’t hit my elbow; the whole thing is about two or three feet across. Since my head faced to the left, I got to see the face of the administration area every day; rows of bars which look like ribbing frame the area; they can be adjusted so only the area assigned for treatment receives the radiation. A light would shine from this area as it adjusted for treatment.

Once everything was positioned correctly, the radiation machine would proceed to hum and buzz and click as treatment was given. There is no physical sensation to this. No pain, no warming of the skin, no tingling. Nothing.

The machine would then rotate to my right for additional treatment. I’m not sure exactly what part was the boost, but this was definitely step two. As the machine rotated, it would click as the ribbing-bars under its glass face were adjusted to shape for administering radiation on the right side of my breast. I never saw what it did precisely, because I was not permitted to move my head from its position; to do so may have shifted me too much for treatment to be accurate. Once the machine settled on the right side, with the black panel thing extended in my view, the machine would hum and buzz and click again. Again, no sensation accompanied this.

The Cone

After this, the techs would come in and adjust the bed’s position so they could put the cone on (see in image above). This is designed to block off the additional radiation so it would affect only the area of my breast where the lump was. I think this was the boost, but I can’t be certain without asking, so don’t quote me. The techs left and more clicking and buzzing and humming for the last step of treatment.

With this, treatment would be completed, and they’d lower and pull the bed out of position so I could move around and sit up.

Going with the Flow

Last year, following one of my writing dowswings, I came back to writing with a mind focused on gay romances. I fought this for about a week, then fiddled with it, and, eventually, picked up my fantasy work again. Right now, I want to say I’m out of this most recent writing downswing, but it ended just about the same time my radiation treatments began and they’ve kind of eaten my writing mind.

But I’m going with the flow.

Part of this means when I do write or work on my writing, I don’t force myself to focus on Chraest’s projects, much as I’d rather be working on them. I’ll be honest and admit I wasn’t happy to come back to writing focused on Hatu Napor’s initial project. I’d decided to let it set until I was done getting my year’s-worth of Chraest’s books done first. However, sometimes my muse throws me curveballs like that.

And the reason why I went with it, instead of forcing myself to work on Chraest’s projects?

I really don’t want to make myself depressed. Because, when I force myself to work on something my writing mind isn’t focused on, I don’t make any progress at all on anything, and I drive myself into a moody, bitchy, depressive mood swing, which just exacerbates everything. I’m not a nice person when I’m like that, to myself or anybody else. It’s not a fun experience at any time, and I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that writing should be fun.

It’s not fun to try and force my creative mind to do something it doesn’t want to.

And even with that, I’ve been happier with this focus than I was any time from 2009 through 2012. Because I’d come out of my downswing focused on the genre I want to write.

And this focus hasn’t lasted long. About two weeks. Last night and the night before, I opened various Chraest projects. I’m reading through them, refamiliarizing myself with the stories, characters, and world. More because of the length of time I’ve been away from them (Eight weeks! Yikes!) than because of anything else. I’m starting to feel excited about working on stuff set on Chraest again.

So I’ll keep going with the flow and see where it leads.

Radiation Sim

This entry is part 30 of 44 in the series Breast Cancer Posts

At three in the afternoon, 26 February of this year, I had my radiation simulation appointment.

This was pretty involved, compared to the radiation treatments themselves. After changing into a hospital gown open in the front, I was taken to the radiation chamber. In this room they have the radiation machine. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it has a table/bed with a slightly-propped up head beneath an overhanging unit which actually administers the radiation. I’m sure the head of the bed can be lowered, but for this it was left propped up and had my mold on it; there’s a slot in the table, and a protrusion on the bottom of my mold so it doesn’t slip. The techs covered the table and mold with a sheet, and there was a little butt-rest. After I got on the table, they tucked a knee pillow under my legs.

Then I laid there for about half an hour or so while they did various things.

First was positioning me. After commanding me to lay like a lead weight, the techs proceeded to quote numbers at each other (ninety-nine five is a popular one) and adjust my position minutely. This involved tugging the sheet beneath me, pushing my legs around, and making sure my upper body was properly positioned in its mold. They then drew circles around the tattooed dot on my right side and between my breasts.

They took X-Rays to mark my position so they could do comparisons later to make sure I’m in the same position for radiation treatments. The head of the machine moved as well, I guess so they could determine where it should be for optimum radiation dosage. An oblong oval was also drawn on my breast, one end going around the inside of my areola and extending to past the seven o’clock position on my breast. This was done in black marker; they also made another mark in green to assist with their adjustments of the machine.

They had a Pandora music station playing and allowed me to choose what I wanted to listen to, so aside from paying attention and asking questions whenever a tech was in the room with me, I got to relax to some good music.

When they were done, one of the techs told me not to wash off the black ink on my breast ’cause they’d need it for guidance the next day. I told him that might be a challenge, half-joking, and he offered a Tegaderm patch and stuck it on the portion of the oval which extends past the seven o’clock position. That done, I was escorted back to the waiting room and returned to the changing room from there to dress.

Curveballs from the Muse

In each of my minor downswings last year, I was creative. I also came out of them focused on Chraesti stories. I had other worlds I’d written stories in, with other magic systems, in various states of worldbuilding, but nothing about them called out to me. I even dropped the one non-Chraesti project I’d been working on for the Two-Year Novel Course, Degrees of Subtlety.

This time, when my writing mind fully surfaced for more than a gasp of air, I found myself focused on this project and world. I was not expecting this at all. The writing urge has tapered off (likely due to the new phase of cancer treatment, which I’ll blog about later), but I spent a number of days last week writing on DoS and worldbuilding for it.

Then I got the concept and basic storyline for another story set in that world.

Unlike Chraest’s stories and worldbuilding, this other world, which I’ve tentatively named Hatu Napor (one guess about where I got the first half of the name), is pure fantasy. No history of spacefaring humans, no alien species and backstory relating the humans’ current situation.

Hatu Napor isn’t the only pure-fantasy world I’ve got which my writing mind could conceivably have decided to focus on. I have one which is tied to our world through places like the Bermuda Triangle; this I’ve called Elindu, and it has vampires, dragons, and a small variety of elven races. There’s also Nahela, where all mages have twins, and all true priests, whether they adhere to a religious philosophy or not, have more than one soul.

But this time, the Muse decided to remind me of my characters Sweetbriar and Arrowroot and their story. It’s been fun working on Hatu Napor and this story and the new idea. They’re markedly different from my Chraesti stories, which makes working on them a nice break. For one, while Chraest’s humans are in a verge-of-industrialization-level society, Hatu Napor has passed that point to some extent. Electricity is present. New weapons are being developed (guns), the automobile has recently been invented and is attainable by those of some financial prominence, though they aren’t exactly reliable. They have factories, and different religious factions vie for prominence. Where in Chraest’s stories homosexuality is almost universally accepted to some extent, in Hatu Napor, or at least the country where these two stories occur, it isn’t quite as welcome.

It’s definitely a nice change.

I’ve restarted DoS and am about four or five chapters in. It’s been a fun rewrite. The original partial manuscript left much to be desired in plotting and characterization, and I’ve been able to make both a bit more complicated this time around. I’m right now doing one or two plot cards per scene written on it while I work on the outline for the other story set in the same country/world. I’m experimenting with this a bit, too: doing two scenes per chapter from one character’s point of view before switching pov for the next chapter. So far, it’s working out well, and I’m going to try the same thing with the other story, only it looks, so far, as if I’ll be doing three scenes per chapter in it. It’s also a nice challenge.

All in all, I’m glad I came out of my most recent downswing with a focus on my fantasy work, even if it isn’t what I’d anticipated working on. It’s proved to be challenging, fun, and a nice break from the intensity of some of my other fantasy work. I also look forward to seeing what other ideas I come up with for Hatu Napor. I’m sure they’ll be just as fun to work on.

Porta-Cath Removal

This entry is part 29 of 44 in the series Breast Cancer Posts

My port was removed on the 25th of February. This proved to be a much less involved procedure than having it put in was. The female physician’s assistant (at least, I think she was a physician’s assistant) who put my port in did the removal.

For this, she took me to a private room. After verifying everything, she had me remove my shirt and bra and I settled on the abbreviated exam bed/table while she laid everything out. Since my right breast was of some small concern, I asked if she wanted to tape it down; she refused, and we figured out a way to restrain it using the sheet she covered me with.

Next, she injected a numbing agent into my skin and the tissue around the port in my chest. Once everything was numb, she reopened the scar I had from my cath placement, asking me if I felt anything. I said I didn’t. Next, she explained tissue grows around the cath, so she had to cut that away, and she proceeded to do so. I told her I felt pulling and pressure but no pain, and she advised me to tell her if I felt any pain and she’d give me more of the numbing agent. She went on to add that some people stitch the cath into place, as it has holes just for such purpose, but that she doesn’t. It was at this point I realized she had placed my porta-cath, while the attending physician simply oversaw things and responded to my questions, so I asked if she’d done many of these procedures, and she told me she’d done a few hundred each of placements and removals.

By this time, she had the tissue all cut away and pressed on my neck where the tube entered my jugular vein. She didn’t press hard, and I felt nothing when she pulled the cath out. For a moment, I saw it, but she quickly put it down out of my sight and picked up a gauze pad to mop up the blood which had come out. She held her fingers on my jugular until she was certain it wouldn’t bleed.

After this, she stitched me shut. Now, I felt pinpricks of pain with this, and she explained that may be because the scar tissue from the last incision may not have adequately absorbed the numbing agent (I want to call it Novocain, but I know that wasn’t it). Last time, a kind of pimple developed at one end of the scar as it healed, so this time she made sure to tuck the sutures in well enough it wouldn’t happen again. Final step was bandaging the wound; she did this with a Tegaderm Film patch which she’d stuck a folded gauze pad in the center of.

After I’d dressed and was afoot once more, I asked to see the porta-cath and she showed me what it looked like. It had a drum-shaped reservoir-section where the injections are made through a special substance which doesn’t allow things in or out. The bottom did indeed have three holes for suturing the cath in place, and the tube was about six inches long; as the physician’s assistant explained it, this is so the tube can go deep into the vein so there’s no chance of the chemo chemicals escaping. Basically, they go almost right into the heart. I thanked her for being willing to explain everything and she sent me on my way with a compliment about how good a patient I’d been.

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