needling at the plot problem.

Metrics: 765 words novelthing (got to the dead body, learned that my protagonist will use being a barbaros as an attack mechanism when threatened); insufficient but extant words academia (book proposal); one film ingested (The Edge of Tomorrow; verdict: nope, not buying it, Mr. Cruise, needed more Angel of Verdun); three episodes of Persona 4: the Anime (NAOTO-KUN <3~);

… and one (1) excruciating walk in the 110-degree heat trying to figure out why I can’t operate the Plot Machine, which is a device I imagine as being somewhat like a slot machine in a slick casino, and which has a lever which, when other people pull it, they get a Thing That Happens, and which, when I pull it, I get a mysterious clunking noise and it eats my money.

So you get a blog post. (I have missed having a blog. Tumblr’s shiny, but it is not the same. I suspect this blog is going to feel a bit like I’ve come from the wild lands of Livejournal circa 2007, when people blogged about Process and Progress Metrics, and occasionally wrote essays.) I think this is going to be a whiny blog post, which feels a little disingenuous, as I managed to write today — when I opened this window, I was worried I was going to get no words at all — but I am needling at this problem and I am very stuck on it and I have little to no idea how to unstick myself.

The inestimable Elizabeth Bear & various other people who are cleverer than me have this thing they say about the tricks a writer gets in the box for free. Everyone gets something. Character, or prose rhythm, or pacing. Or the instructions to the Plot Machine. I, for my sins, got setting — which isn’t the worst thing to have as a SFF writer, mind you, you want your weird shit evocatively and coherently described, I have got acres of weird shit to sell you, here is a city made of salt, here is a panopticon police state, here is the first Crusade outside of Acre — and I’ve picked up a halfway decent set of prose and character tools along the way.

To the point where I am really, really getting good at the first 750 words of a short story. And also getting good at getting stuck right there.

Setting + SFnal idea + a fair command of prose will get you 750 words. Sometimes I also get a decent concept of what the end is, and therefore the thematic weight of what I’m trying to do.

After those 750 words, something has to happen. And yes, I know that plot is character + situation + problem, and that I’ve usually got Situation and Character and if I chew on it enough I can get Problem, and then I can tell you what the story is about and how it ends. But not what happens. There is some kind of hideous glass wall in my head about turning Problem into Events, especially at the short-story length. (I may have gotten around it in the novel, because the novel is big enough that I can literally throw ideas at the wall for thousands of words. Also I’m cheating: my plot is a hideous mashup of a whodunnit mystery and some shit that went down in the Bagratuni Kingdom of Armenia in 1044 CE. If I get stuck I can go read Matthew of Edessa.) But at the short-story length? Where each event has to carry thematic weight and punch?

I am stuck like an ungainly thing in a tar pit.

… reading this, I suspect that what I ought to do is steal more plots. (Stolen plots are complicated, I whine. Stolen plots have multiple moving parts. I want something clean and jewellike and gutpunchy. I am not realistic in my desires.)

Anyway, this is my Plot Problem. Trying to get from this is why this happened to this is what happened.

Sometimes I think I may have developed this problem because I learned to write by producing reams of fanfiction. And I was never a ‘write fic to assuage the needs of my id’ person, I was a ‘write fic to elucidate a point about the source canon’ person. This produces a lot of vignettes and set-pieces, and work where I just used the plot that the source canon gave me and did something different with it. And not a lot of practice in creating a machine that produces events, rather than one that comments on theme.

Possibly I need to start thinking of short stories as arguments, not as commentary. Prooftext, not catena marginalia.

Well. At least there were words today.

An actual blog, with an actual blog post.

I ought to have one of these, oughtn’t I?


I’m Arkady Martine. I write science fiction and fantasy, when I’m not researching Byzantium and the medieval Caucasus for the Other Job, under the Other Name. I like nanites and doppelgangers and dead languages. I write a lot about memory and propaganda, no matter which job I’m doing. I’ve just started selling my stories to semiprofessional and professional magazines, and I’m working on what I hope will be my first novel this summer. I was a Viable Paradise XVII student and can enthuse endlessly about that experience.

I’m hoping this blog will be a decent place to talk about writing (mine and other people’s) and other SFnal things, as they occur to me.

The brief biographical sketch: late-twenties, female, New Yorker (but with no current fixed address), raised by wild classical musicians, just finished a PhD in Byzantine history. Most likely found wandering in a foreign city where I don’t know the language, entranced by some obscure grammar from 875 CE, and thinking about aliens.