Author Archive for Margaret Ronald


Tales from the Gray Cubicle

Warning: Probably some whining ahead.

I’m still trying to figure out this whole day job thing. I work 10-6 M-F in a cubicle job for a large financial company (hereafter referred to as ConHugeCo). It’s not a job that has any connection to my writing (unless I want to start a new branch of Financial Fantasy), and it’s a fairly reliable one. When asked about it, I usually say that it brings in the groceries and pays for insurance, and that’s about the extent of it.

Realistically, something that takes up that much of my time has to have more of an impact than that. And at times like these — when the revisions are just not coming together and the deadline is starting to loom — the tension between time spent writing and time spent earning money becomes a lot more worrying. And, of course, now is when we’re hitting the end-of-the-year crunch at ConHugeCo.

Over the summer, I’ve been lucky enough to swing some flextime, which made the difference when it came to getting Wild Hunt together (and certainly made a difference for this particular book). But that’s not possible at this time of year, so I’m suddenly balancing a lot more work on a lot less time. When the workload at ConHugeCo increases to the point of overtime for everyone, the writing takes on two new aspects. If, as now, I write before I go in to work, then no matter what else happens I’ve got that on my internal record of Worthwhile Things I’ve Done Today. (And after dealing with small frustrations all day, knowing that I’ve finished a chapter really does help.) However, it also means that by the end of the day, I don’t have much brain left.

In a purely intellectual sense, I know that the solution is to pick myself up and get the damn work done anyway, no matter how I feel. After all, I still have the mental space to work out plots and notes during the day (and over lunch, and when I have two free minutes plus a blank sheet of paper), so therefore the potential is there. But (and here’s where the whining really comes in) after a week or two of this, all I want to do is curl up somewhere and read popcorn fiction until I fall asleep in my chair.

Not only is this not the right response if I want to get any work done, it’s also a very spoiled response. I have a day job, after all, and one that has not done me irreparable harm; why am I balking at a little more work? The whole thing seems to be a matter of getting my mind right.

So for writers or artists or musicians out there who are juggling their work with a day job: how do you get your mind right? Is it all a matter of time management — writing during breaks or on your commute, finding time where there was none before? Is there a particular outlook or approach that helps you? I’d also like to know how stay-at-home parents manage to balance that and creative work, because goddamn that’s a job and a half. (From an outsider’s perspective, it seems the only thing that has any room to budge would be sleep.)  Is it all just a matter of not enough hours in the day?


A new way to procrastinate on revision

You are in a WRITER’S ROOM.
There is a desk here.
There is a chair here.
Exits are W and E.
What do you do?

> revise

How do you want to do that? Continue reading ‘A new way to procrastinate on revision’


Navel-gazing and turkey. Except turkeys don’t have navels.

At a mock-Thanksgiving dinner a couple of weeks ago, someone brought up how people in the city where he’d recently moved tend to introduce themselves based on their creative work, instead of their day jobs, as opposed to the other way around here in greater Boston.  I don’t know how much of this was just his impression or if it actually is widespread,  but it did get me thinking about how we construct identity.  It took me a very long time to be able to introduce myself first as a writer, even though I’ve thought of myself that way for years.

But with family, it’s different.  And with Thanksgiving coming up, it’s on my mind again.

For one thing, you’re not introducing yourself in most family situations; maybe Uncle Edith doesn’t really remember what it is you do for a living these days, but what you did at the reunion in ’94 has cemented your identity in his mind as “the one with the macaroni.”  And it’s really hard sometimes to ask the same people who saw you throw a tantrum over Lego bricks to take you seriously as a creative artist.

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I get this weird defensiveness about my writing in family situations that is completely out of proportion to everything else.  It’s as if I feel I have to justify my work by bringing up the practicalities, the business side of things, rather than the more fun parts of it.  Even though I’m very lucky in that my family enthusiastically supports what I do, there’s still part of me that expects to be asked “so how is your real work?”  Call it my own insecurities poking through.

In the past few years I think I’ve mellowed a bit on this point, or at least have stopped automatically defending my work.  Some of it is probably because of the books, but I think more has to do with me accepting that yes, this is my real work.

I’ll be spending this Thanksgiving with my in-laws, which means I’ll probably miss the story about the gnomes (or whatever strangeness comes out of this year’s dinner).  But for all other writers and musicians and poets dreading family dinners, here’s to you and your real work.  Enjoy the turkey, even if the ham’s a little dry, and remember that no amount of questions over dinner can make your work more or less real.


(Also, best thing about Thanksgiving?  Pie for breakfast on Friday.)


Post With Four!

(No relation to Game With Four, as you can probably tell from the language.  Serious posts will follow eventually; sorry to be so fluffy of late.)

Four books that always make me cry:

  • Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
  • Nation, by Terry Pratchett
  • The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle
  • Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy Sayers

Four elements I’ve always wanted to work into a story and haven’t (yet):

  • Locks. Not in the sense of keys and locks, but in the sense of canal locks. I don’t know nearly enough about the dynamics of them, but something about them appeals to my sense of Grand Metaphor. It may be for the best that I’ve never written about them.
  • A conspiracy theory as a pernicious and harmful (and potentially sentient) meme or a curse.
  • Figured bass notation. At least once every ten months I’ll get this Gene-Wilder-in-Young Frankenstein look, yell “IT COULD WORK!!!” and scratch out an outline for a story about this, then realize that it’s either so bogged down in infodump or too flimsy to go anywhere and junk the whole thing.
  • Surrealist art — specifically, Max Ernst’ collages. I know this is triggered by a story I read some time ago involving these collages, but I can’t remember the author or title or even the anthology. I had a big long outline worked out for a novel along these lines, and even a rough first draft, but it collapsed under its own symbolism.

Four books for which I’ve wanted Cliff’s Notes:

  • Vellum, by Hal Duncan
  • The Mistborn series, by Brandon Sanderson (Luckily, I think notes for these exist; I’ve just been lazy in finding them)
  • The Urth of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
  • Infinite Jest (oh GOD Infinite Jest) by David Foster Wallace

Four scenes for which my internal soundtrack involves far too many overwrought guitar riffs:

  • Temeraire and the Divine Wind.
  • The battle at the end of The Book of Three.
  • “No living man am I.” YEAH.
  • The last climactic scene of Wild Hunt. I refuse to feel bad about this.

Comment with four?


The book as an object

I’m not a bibliophile of the first order by any means.  I may be perpetually running out of shelf space, but having seen houses where the stacks of books dictated where you could walk, sit, or sleep, I know I’m not even close to that level of book hoarding.  My library’s a mess, organized by what will fit where rather than any real system. (I visited a friend’s house recently and had an attack of book envy when I learned that not only did they have separate rooms for fiction and nonfiction, but that the nonfiction was arranged by Library of Congress rules.)  And with some exceptions, I don’t treat my books well.  Paperbacks get bent, creased, rained on, used to hold recipes in place, bled on, and used to prop up furniture, though hardcovers work better for that purpose.

But I still assign a certain power to books, and a certain quality that’s entirely independent from their contents. I have real trouble throwing away or recycling a book, no matter how bad it is or how unlikely I am to ever read it again.  I feel better carrying a book around with me, just for the knowledge that if I’m stuck somewhere, I’ll have reading material.  There’s almost a talismanic quality to them.

Which is what makes it so weird to open a book and realize that the words in it were words I strung together.  It’s as if there’s a block between the first perception of the book and the story that I wrote.  I can’t quite match one to the other, and whenever I read something of mine in print, there’s always this strange disconnect, as if I’m reading through a mask or as if someone else is reading the words in my ear.  It’s like one last separation between me and the text.

I recently received my ARCs for Wild Hunt and my contributor’s copies of Best Horror of the Year 1, and that’s what’s driving this particular line of thought.  (That, and having handed over my draft of the third novel to BRAWL, I’m in that scattered, vacant state of thought perhaps best expressed in Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp.  Concentrating on anything more than a short story is a little difficult at the moment.)  It’s very strange to have worked on something for so long to bring it to this point and then be unable to recognize it.

I don’t know if this is just one of those weird author neuroses.  (Lord knows I’ve got my own complement of those.)  And of course, this is all changing now with the advent of the Kindle and other e-book readers.  I haven’t yet used one of these, so I have no idea how I’ll react to text in this new format.  (I don’t have quite the same reaction reading work online; maybe it’s just that I’m used to reading my work off a screen.)

Does anyone else have this weird talismanic relationship to books, or the same reaction to seeing their work in print?  Or can I just add this to the list of strange reactions to writing?


Aural stories

The aliens are invading, and they’re coming for your parking space.

Okay, so that’s a silly way of looking at this weekend’s upcoming radio play in Somerville.  I’m not even tangentially involved with the production, but I’ve watched some parts of it come together, and it’s got me thinking about storytelling that doesn’t touch either the screen or the printed page.  (Incidentally, if you’re in the area, come see the show.  Aliens!  Coffee syrup!  A stationary marching band!)

Radio plays and audio fiction are media I know very little about.  I’ve seen a couple of radio plays performed — and that I say I’ve seen them tells you something about how my perception of them is a little skewed — but I don’t often listen to them, nor do I often listen to podcast fiction, despite the many good sources for it.  And that’s a shame, because stories told this way play on the audience’s attention in entirely different ways.

Audio fiction isn’t quite the same, but there are some shared elements — you have only the description as it’s read, and to follow the story you have to be willing to concentrate.  I can almost fall more easily into an author’s world when I’m listening than when I’m reading, simply because I have to stop and pay attention.  I can’t just scan the page, looking for the next clue to the plot or the clue that I missed on my first read.  Done well, it can be enchanting: one of my favorite Christmas traditions is to listen to Christopher Plummer reading E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker (the whole, trippy thing, not the chopped-up version in most retellings).

I have mixed reactions depending on how the reader voices different characters; I got sick of one audio novel because all of the villains had the same nasty nasal tone.  (One friend of mine says that she’s never heard any author read their own work well.  I have to admit I take that as a challenge.)  And like radio plays, there’s the possibility that the intensity of emotion won’t carry over well, becoming laughable or just strange.  I always feel a little silly when reading big dramatic scenes aloud, just because I’m skittish about whether they sound as good outside my head.

So this is, again, my way of asking the great wide internet for recommendations: What podcasts or radio plays would you recommend? Are there certain stories that just work better when read aloud?  What doesn’t work so well in this medium — either through poor performance or the source itself?  And does putting a folding chair out really keep the aliens from your parking space, or does it just draw the wrath of public works?


Warning: Extended metaphor ahead

I’ve climbed Mount Monadnock several times since I was a kid, enough that I’m not really sure how many times I’ve actually made it to the summit.  I’ve been up on days so clear that we could see Boston from the top, and on gray rainy drizzly days that, in hindsight, would have been much better spent at home.  It’s been enough of a family tradition that we have long-running jokes about it (particularly the nonexistent lemonade stand at the top).

And every time, once I’ve reached the top, I tell myself that going down will be easier.

Experienced hikers are probably shaking their heads and smiling at this.  I have no explanation for my continuing delusion on this point, beyond lightheadedness and the ease of old patterns of thought.  Going down isn’t easier; it’s still rough and slow and, occasionally, painful.  But what comes to mind now is the part of the trail past Falcon Spring, where it’s no longer nearly as steep and the trail’s wide enough to accommodate many people.  And for some reason, this is the part of the trip that just. drags. on.

Maybe it’s because of memories of the first few hikes up the mountain, when I couldn’t wait to be back down again so that I could go home and jump in the lake.  Maybe it’s because the only bathrooms are at the end of the trail, and that probably made an impression on the younger me as well.  And maybe it’s because at this point, the hike is mostly over, and I’ve got my sights set on what comes next.  For whatever reason, this is the part of the hike that should be easiest, but it’s where I get either so impatient I want to run the rest or so weary I can barely manage it.

In not unrelated news, I’m at the very end of a draft right now.

Each time through, I tell myself that “as soon as I hit X point, it’ll be smooth sailing.” As soon as I reach the museum scene.  As soon as I get to the big fight.  As soon as I get to the burning building.  And each milestone just shows that there’s so much left to go and so much more to fix.

This ought to be the home stretch, right?  I ought to be able to just zip through these last few chapters and have it done, right?  But that last bit of the hike, the last couple of chapters, are somehow the worst to work through, regardless of how much needs to be done.  It can be maddening.

But going by past experience, at some point in the next few pages, I’ll hit my stride, and when I reach the point where I dropped down two lines and wrote “THE END,” I’ll stare at my screen for a moment, blinded like a hiker coming out of the woods into full sunlight, unable to quite believe it’s done.

And then I’ll go jump in a lake.