Category Archives: Writing

Here Be Dragons, And Bookworms

Yes I still blog, yes I’m still alive, yes I’m still playing with my imaginary friends and writing about it. And yes, I still read what other authors are going through in their own journeys in hopes that it helps me through mine, and I hope that my scribblings might at least encourage a few others to keep going.

Today’s topic: In Search of the Unknown. (+10 Internet Awesome Points to anyone who gets that reference without using a search engine.) A little backstory is, like in most good fantasy novels, necessary. Last December, I began writing an epic fantasy trilogy, after writing eight or nine mostly modern fantasy books that never went anywhere past my desk. I began the process by sitting with my notebook, visualizing The Writer, The Muse, and three or four actor-characters on an empty stage, discussing what project they were going to come up with next. And even though I had a lot of fun with this method, I finally lowered the curtain, took their notes, and began writing Part One, Book One, of a projected three or four book epic. Sorry, E.P.I.C. There would be competing systems of magic. There would be an old religion and an upstart. There would be Knights and young men and women and armies and riots, all caught in a string of events beyond their control. And most of all, there would be a Dragon, unlike any I had ever read about before. And so, pen and laptop in hand, I charged on in, writing 2000 or more words a day, with just about as much of an outline as what I’ve given you already.

I finished Part One at around 100 pages or so, took a breather for a day, and charged on to Part Two. By this point, the cracks were already showing up in the edifice that I’d tried to build on my ideas, but I was nothing if not determined to finish this. When I wasn’t writing, I would daydream in numbers… 60,000 words a month, 360,000 words in half a year, maybe a little more, then editing, revising, and finishing before the same date rolled around a year later. So what if I didn’t know WHY things were happening in my world? or WHY certain religions had issues with each other? or WHY the government was trying to consolidate its power, or what the Knights were doing, or what my three young protagonists were to do next after being pulled adrift in the seas of fate? I was a writer! I could push through and fix it later! I was…

Yeah, I was stuck. Hard. I fell into the type of writer’s block that resulted from me overwriting my plans and imagination, and refusing to stop and ask for directions, or to plot out a new path. Part Three sputtered and faltered a few times, and I finally found myself spending the spring and summer working on another project. The few times I looked back at Parts One and Two, I could tell that there were serious issues in my story from Day One. I felt like a traveler on the side of the road, wondering why his car just broke down in the middle of a road trip, and ignoring the fact that he had never changed the oil, checked the tires, or paid attention to the warning lights and unusual handling or shaking or braking of the vehicle for the entire trip. Yet the story, like the concept the driver had of the cross-country road trip, would not leave me alone. My characters felt like they had spent a lot of time making up the story for me, and they weren’t going to let me off the hook.

So I decided to back up and start over, something that is ten times harder for me than starting in the first place. I was inspired by either a Tweet or a Facebook Post by my writer-friend Davide Mana (link goes to his blog, though I highly recommend his books, which you can and should buy on Amazon) in which he said he was committing to writing a 100,000 word novel between September and the end of the year. He even pointed out that he would be able to write it at less than 1000 words a day to hit that goal. And the whole time I’m thinking, “Book One of my Trilogy is supposed to be 100-120,000 words… hell, I could do this. I should do this!” And that was why, after a few days of reorganizing my Scrivener folder into a Draft, an Old Draft, and a World Book, I set off on 20 September 2017, along the old pathways but heading for unknown country.

I made the decision to type everything from scratch (Scrivener’s split-window worked really well for this), which was difficult, but I think essential… copy-editing would have left all the problems I had noticed when I reread the thing, and these problems were ones that went down to the very foundation. The other decision I made, perhaps the hardest one, was to only write 1000 words a day. Understand… I wrote my first novel at that speed, my second at 1500, and from then on, 2000-2500 words a day, so it took me a little while to get used to that snail’s pace. And it took me even longer to get over the irrational conviction that I was failing by writing too slowly, or not writing the way I knew I should be writing. That took a lot more time and mental energy than I’d like to admit.

Once I saw the snail leading my book along take its time to step around all the obstacles and dead ends in my book, though, I fell in love with this new writing regimen. On the days when I had the time and inclination to write more (which was usually five or six days a week) I spent that time in my World Book, writing about the characters, their cities, their culture. My model was the World Building Leviathan from KittySpace, but my energy came from a drive to tell my story and a need to have more material to work with. I still had dark memories of not knowing why things in my complex fantasy world worked the way they did, or stumbling in the middle of a scene because I didn’t know what was inside my characters’ heads, or especially what the supporting characters (NPCs for you fellow gamers out there) were up to, and that made me plan and outline and write background information like never before.

That brings me up to this weekend. My rewrite, up until now, has added more depth to my story, along with at least 10,000 more words, but after this last chapter, I will be at the point where my story stalled before. And even though I have a rough outline of the entire trilogy, and a five-page synopsis/ outline of this book, I feel like one of my own characters, clutching a scrawled map in one hand, a guttering torch in the other, and facing the dark, impenetrable forest that stymied my efforts at crossing it once before. I know that this time, I’m better prepared, though I’m still concerned that all of the gear in my backpack is stuff I’ll use once over the month-long journey ahead, and the stuff I really need is back at the base camp. And I can see things in the dark trees and undergrowth, the scrub jungle, telling me to walk around, or maybe travel another day.

But, my team of adventurers behind me depends on me to forge a path, and write about it. Hopefully, I do it in such a way that makes them proud.

Good luck with your weekend, and the next few weeks, everybody.

READING:  Two books… finishing up David Copperfield (which is decent, but really testing my commitment to being a hardcore Dickens fan… I might have to go back and reread Bleak House as a present to myself, afterward), and a Victorian Ghost Novel called The Uninhabited House. The latter is not frightening at all (indeed, I suspect it wasn’t written to be frightening), but the characters are fascinating and enjoyable. This book I also tried to set down after 25 pages or so, but they (especially Miss Blake) kept stepping into my head and telling me to read the rest of their story. I’ll be back with full reports once I finish them.

 

Write a Synopsis of Your Novel, in Two Nosebleeds or Less

Today, my desk is filled with two cats, my third mug of tea, a legal pad full mostly of crossed-out lines with a few good ones hanging out here and there, a powered-down phone, and two half-synopses of my Dwarf Airship Espionage novel, trying to find a way to paste the two together and not make it look like it was written at 3:00AM on the last day of vacation, to quote Charlie Brown’s teacher in her assessment of his Gulliver’s Travels book report. So far, things are looking good, but I’d much rather be in the middle of this book or others and actually playing with my imaginary friends, rather than writing an after-action report about their adventures. I remember too many days as a junior leader in the Navy having to stay behind on a Friday afternoon and write reports on what our division did, rather than leave the ship like my junior sailors got to. On the other hand, I remember being treated a little better, by both sides of the Chain of Command, because I wrote the reports well, so here’s hoping my Navy skills have translated properly.

Synopsis writing is an interesting beast. I don’t know how many synopses I’ve written of other books throughout my decades as a reader and writer, but it is so much easier to write about another author’s book rather than my own. In a book report, I’m happy if I illustrate the main conflict, how it relates to the characters, and the general resolution of the plot, maybe dropping in one or two scenes here and there for illustration. Writing about my own? I either feel like I’m skipping way too many details, or I’m getting caught up talking about the witty comments one character made to another and yet skipping the battle going on behind them, just because I happen to really like that line and I want to be sure that any prospective synopsis-reader sees it, because then he or she will know how clever I am, and will offer to buy all of my books, plus ones I haven’t written yet, and will send enough dollars my way to fill up my Currency Jacuzzi in my beach house in Antarctica. (It’s not crowded at all, and once you befriend the penguins, they bring you all the best herring. I call them… my herring aids. Thank you, I’ll just see myself out.)

The best way I’ve found to do this so far is to write a sentence describing each chapter. Though this can be hard for me to do, especially if I want to include something really neat that I included in that chapter, I find that if I have a good solid idea of what the chapter is about, I can usually puzzle out a way to say it in fifteen or twenty words. Then I add a sentence describing the next chapter. Then I add a sentence patching the two together, sometimes two. Then I read it and add another one, if necessary. It’s a time-consuming process but, aside from occasionally wanting to rip out my hair because I can’t decide which modifier best modifies what I’m modifying, but I wind up with a finished product. It might not be as exciting as the novel itself (at least, I hope the novel is more exciting), but it explains the course of the story, and most importantly, shows any agent or publishing representative that I have a completed book and I know enough of the craft to at least look like I know what I’m doing. At least, that’s what I hope I look like. We’ll see.

So far, as I stitch and polish the last part of a submissions package, the one “Lesson Learned” I’ve picked up from this is to write my one-sentence synopsis after every chapter as I first write it, and update it after each rewrite. I think this will make the job of picking out the truly important details a lot easier, especially during a re-write and a re-re-write. At least once on every second draft I’ve wound up deleting something I didn’t think mattered, only to find it explicitly referred to three chapters down the line. When I finish my final draft work and get back to the long novel I’m roughing out (or another story about my haplessly intrepid Dwarf spies) I’ll be able to test it out and see if it works as good as I hope. At any rate, knowing how to tell my story effectively in as few words as possible can’t hurt, even if I then wind up adding more words for protein, good fat content, carbs, and just seasoning.

I apologize. Not only am I polishing a submission package, I’m on Week Two of a new diet plan, and nearly everything I think of somehow relates to food. (Insert “eating his words” pun here…) I’ll be sure to have more news tomorrow from the editing, writing, and dieting fronts for your digestive pleasure.

Bed Making and Other Composing Techniques

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I’m a writer, and I’m manic-depressive… but I repeat myself. I don’t think there’s a requirement for a writer to be bi-polar or clinically depressive or any other mental illness that requires us to spend a lot of time huddled in a blanket fort and threatening to Taser the face off anyone who bothers us (and in my case, that would be my face more than any other), but it does seem to go hand in hand. I think it’s because we as humans like to be entertained, and when you spend as much time alone as a depressive person does, whether by choice or because you can’t bear to move from your spot no matter how much you want to, you have to tell your own stories.

Sometimes, when I’m at the bottom of a supremely low period, like I was yesterday (and like I suspect I might still be) I wonder how I ever get anything done, but I still manage to push through, day after day, in my journal at least, if not in my manuscript and any current programming project. My journal might be nothing more than me complaining about how I not only suck, but my pages of complaints aren’t even written very well, but I still manage to get things down. I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write something every day, I wind up in an endless feedback loop. Being depressed about not writing for a day makes it harder to write the next day, and if I succumb and take two days off…

This post is about a few things, including my return to blogging, my announcement of a new book project, and my pledge to fill people in on it, along with blips and blurbs about what I read, what I hear, and what I do on those days I decide to leave Fort Blanketopolis, but it’s also about how I learned my Mom was right. If she’s reading this, this is where she says “Oh, that’s nice, he’s writing fiction again,” but I do mean it this time. My Mom, a German immigrant who was born a few years after the war and came to the US just in time to experience Patti Page once she knew enough English to sing along, is a lot of wonderful things. And I really hate to indulge in a stereotype, but one set of genes my Mom got were the ones that dictated order and routine. Apparently, she liked those genes so much she decided to keep them all to myself and decided not to pass them down, and I spent a good part of my childhood arguing about how my clothes didn’t need to be folded, my room was okay as long as nothing was crawling around, and as long as my books were in order, nothing else had to be. I couldn’t see the point of a lot of the things she had me do, since everything was just going to get messy and disordered again. For example, I *DID* think it was nice to crawl into a made bed at night, but was it really worth spending a few minutes doing that every morning, especially when those few minutes took away from the little bit of reading I got to do before the bus showed up? I didn’t think so.

Fast-forward to me now, after serving twenty years in the Navy (where everything had to be in its place, but for a good reason: if something wasn’t, it could fall and trip someone on a damage control party or a firefighting team, or float away during flooding, or hit someone in the head, or in some way cause all manner of horribleness to happen) and I’ll admit to liking things in something resembling order. And I do like having a wide uncluttered workspace, since I know how easily I can get distracted. (Plus, I have long arms, and they need room.)

But, since moving into our new place a month or so ago, I’ve discovered the joy of bed-making as therapy. Originally, I started doing it because we had very little in our room at first, and I liked the idea of seeing everything straight and simple and in place; I wanted to preserve the way it looked when we first moved in. But even now that we’ve settled and arranged all of our things, I still find myself pulling down the covers, pulling up the sheets, and making the bed look decent, and I can’t do much else now until that’s done. Even yesterday, when I had trouble doing anything except for staring at the ceiling and wishing my brain would shut up and let me read, I had to make the bed. And after I did that, I was able to sit down and at least write four or five pages on my projects. I’m next to positive that the three or four minutes of routine activity helped jostle my working brain loose from the crowd he’d been hanging out with (the “I suck everyone hates me” brain, and the “read another chapter/ blog post/ funny comment on Reddit” brain are two particular friends of his). And that part of my brain has been responsible for me having a 110-page Part One of a novel, and is pushing me forward on the rest of the book, too.

So, thanks Mom. You were wrong about a few things, like how you think lamb is disgusting and mayonnaise is delicious, but you were right about this.

Meditative Monday

writers-block-graphic-how-to-cure-uncreative-periods-hemingway

I had a busy two-day working weekend, but I feel good about it. Not only did I make a good bit of money for our family business, I got further in my book project than I would have said I was going to, if you had asked me last Thursday. Today, I have to balance some more of that writing, along with paying a couple of bills, laundry, dishes, and some kid time as well… I was mostly gone from one this weekend and completely away from the other. And, I miss my sister and need to go see her. And my fiancée is still working and I won’t get to see her til Thursday. And I’m about a quarter into an amazing book. And…

All of those are amazing excuses, and also representative of the constant chatter in my head. Toss onto that pile of things my characters are saying about me and my own writing…

What about my scene? When are you getting to my chapter? OOOH, and then THIS part is coming up, and then this one, and don’t listen to what that other guy said, THIS is what really happened, but you should write it like this, and this and…

…and it’s kind of amazing that I get anything done. But, I have that writing mantra on my desktop background, and I’m determined to push out a little more. This book is not going to come easy, but it won’t come out at all if I’m not insistent.

 

Draft Zero (or perhaps, Orez Tfard)

Lots of smoke, lots of shrapnel, lots of life changes over the last year, but I’m still here trying to put one word in front of the last word, whether or not those two words are friends, regardless if the second word once said something bad about the first word’s mother… DAMNIT, it’s MY project, and I’m going to make those words get along.

I’ll write more about the demise of my last  project, but tonight, I have to talk about the status of my new endeavor. For years, I’ve wanted to write a Southern Gothic novel. The fact that I had only lived in the south for a year when I first decided this meant nothing. The fact that I wrote primarily magic realism or fantasy with modern twists (the Dwarfs with Steampunk technology) also meant nothing. This might be linked to my early, impressionable years spent reading Stephen King and John Irving (New England Gothic, if that’s a thing) and my early writing years with Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. No matter. After a couple more years of working on a lot of different things, including moving and traveling for a living and spending my time with three people weirdly creative and respectful of my introversion, I picked up a pen last August and wrote 100 pages and four chapters about a family in northern Georgia, where I’ve hiked since first moving to the south, and kept going until I wrote into a hole. So I decided to read it from the beginning.

It sucked.

A vacuum cleaner running Windows Vista in the middle of a black hole could not have sucked harder.

But writers are nothing if not stupid… I mean, persistent, and I kept that on the back burner. After sending another project to oblivion, I went back, and thought, “I need to outline my characters and chapters and try again.”

Ten failed pages.

“Okay, how’bout I set this in northern Michigan, where I grew up? Okay, well, where I spent a lot of time about three hours to the north of where I grew up.”

Fifteen failed pages… wait, NO!

The prologue, all twelve and a half pages of it… which somehow emerged from my head after simultaneously thinking of The Brothers Karamazov and The Princess Bride… actually worked, when I reread it. It worked well. I yelped and jumped for joy. Actually, that was the other way around… I live in a house with low overheads. If you’re 5’13” like me, don’t ever jump for joy in such a place. Anyway, there I was, with a satisfactory prologue in front of me, and “Chapter One” at the top of the page.

Then at the top of another page.

Then at the top of a third page, with three pages of blah blah blech in front of it.

I’d thought that cutting out the first two chapters of my original attempt would help. I could start the story where the action started, and only insert those details that needed inserting, something that editing coaches and Lower GI Tract Doctors both advise. But that still didn’t work. I felt like I did the second day I drove a stick shift in San Francisco on a hill in stopped traffic… I was stalled, gunning the engine, and rolling backwards. At least in that case, I figured it out. I learned how to drive a stick shift in about two seconds. In this case, I think I have it.

There’s a writing technique called “Draft Zero,” though I’ve also heard it called “Expanded Outline” and I think I called it “Summary Outline”  myself, once. The object is to write out your story as absolutely fast as you can, skipping details unless they’re immediately there in your head. The result is something like a long outline (like, half the length of your finished project) or a stripped down draft. Then, you go back and rework it into a proper rough draft. I myself have usually called my first draft “The Raw Draft” and the second pass-through “The First Clean Draft.” (If nothing else, it’s clean because all the profanity I sometimes scribble in the margins doesn’t make it.) I thought… maybe if I try this technique and do a Draft Zero, or a Raw Draft for my Chapter, it will…

Well, it didn’t. I couldn’t even get out a sentence.

But something else stuck in my noggin. A lot of things do. By the end of a writing day, my superior temporal gyrus looks like the underside of a bus seat. A lot of it is crap, but just like that bus seat, some of it is tasty and useful. (Hey, I’m willing to try anything to get a book out.)

A few other writers, Margaret Mitchell among them, wrote backwards. Not word for word, but chapter for chapter, or even scene for scene. “What if,” my Muse suggested, “what if you write a rough outline-like raw draft for your first chapter, starting with the last scene?” Because, I knew how the chapter was supposed to end. I could see that vividly in my mind, and there was even a possibility that it was vivid enough for other people to see it as well, leaking out of my pores. But getting there… every time I tried, I just wrote around in circles. But… write what you know, right? And so, I did just that.

I doubt I’m the first person to ever think of that, but I’m definitely glad that I did. I now have a stack of index cards numbered from 0 to -5, and I’ll keep writing them, backing up a scene each time, until I’m at the place I think my reader wants to begin. Each card has about three sentences on it… I didn’t completely fill them up. Next step is to write a zero draft of the cards, probably going in the same reverse order… I still need to work from that ending. But then, then I’ll get to write from the beginning to the end in my manuscript, and for the first time since first thinking “Southern Gothic sounds fun,” I don’t dread working on this project.

It feels nice. Frighteningly nice.

 

 

Book Beginnings Friday: A Suitable Boy

Those who follow me on Goodreads know that I’ve just recently finished the 10-volume amazingly epic (and long… very very long) series The Malazan Book of the Fallen. My plans afterwards were to read a few short (like, exceedingly short) novellas and such, but after flying through two thrillers (The Girl With All the Gifts and the excellent, creepy folkloric horror novel The Black Tongue) I decided to plunge back into the world of large book mansions, worlds large enough to get lost in for weeks. Also, don’t tell my Muse this, but I wanted a break from fantasy fiction. So, I picked up a book I’d read briefly a few years before but never finished, or even got too far in, thanks to a freak New England rainstorm which claimed all 1475 pages as a sacrifice, and I’m already lost in wonderment and memories of my first experience with its amazing wordcraft:

‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas. The wedding-guests were gathered on the lawn. ‘Hmm,’ she said. This annoyed her mother further.

‘I know what your hmms mean, young lady, and I can tell you I will not stand for hmms in this matter. I do know what is best. I am doing it all for you. Do you think it is easy for me, trying to arrange things for all four of my children without His help?’ Her nose began to redden at the thought of her husband, who would, she felt certain, be partaking of their present joy from somewhere benevolently above. Mrs Rupa Mehra believed, of course, in reincarnation, but at moments of exceptional sentiment, she imagined that the late Raghubir Mehra still inhabited the form in which she had known him when he was alive:  the robust, cheerful form of his early forties before overwork had brought about his heart attack at the heights of the Second World War. Eight years ago, eight years, thought Mrs Rupa Mehra miserably.

‘Now, now, Ma, you can’t cry on Savita’s wedding day,’ said Lata, putting her arm gently but not very concernedly around her mother’s shoulder.

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

The book continues on for over 800,000 words of this marvelous, beautiful prose. After the first 50 pages or so, I found myself immersed, flying through the small print as fast as my eyes could crawl over the letters. The characters are rich, the culture both wonderfully strange and hauntingly familiar, and the plot weaves and wraps around the lives and thoughts of these wonderful four families. I will have a full review when I finish, but I have a feeling I will not want to leave this world when I turn the last page.

And as I often like to do, I’m sharing this at Rose City Reader as part of their Bookish Friday Celebration. I’m there right now, but later on, join me at Friday Night Writes on Twitter. (@bovisrex)

Leave it to Angry Robot(s) to leave the door open

So while I was shuffling through my documents and bookmarks yesterday, looking for something  to work on (my current work-in-progress isn’t exactly progressing) I learned that a publishing company I like is flinging open their mailbox and accepting submissions. From 1 December 2015 to 31 January 2016, they will be accepting full-length works of  “SF, F, and a little pinch of WTF.” This means that I might have hope for the two novellas and scattered story fragments staring a rather different uncivilized hero… it’s now time to put these together, make them something that people will want to read, and then smack them over the head until they read it. Err, I mean, publish it and give them the opportunity to honor me by reading my stories. Yeah. That’s what I meant.

If you’re a writer, check out the offer. If you’re a reader, check out their books. I’ve read a couple of them, and they have good taste.

Angry Robot Announces an Open Door Period

Writing Tips: A List that is actually GOOD

One of the reasons I’ve been writing flash fiction (3 weeks, now… maybe 49 to go, maybe more…) is because I’m fishing around the little pools in my subconscious for a new book, and the short bursts of fiction not only help me hone my craft, they’re a way of baiting my hook and hopefully pulling a bigger idea out. And while I’ve finished 8 novel length manuscripts, I’ve only recently learned what works and what doesn’t. So, here is a list of things not to do in a first or second or tenth novel. Yes, I’m guilty of a few.

Top Ten Writing Mistakes

Story 9/52: Note To Self —

Today’s story is more a character exploration than a full story, somewhere between a vignette and flash fiction. The seed came from a prompt on the excellent Reddit writing forum, Writing Prompts, though I have yet to read any of the other submissions to that prompt. (I will once this hits the streets.)

Coming up in the next week or two is my next foray into Southern Gothic. About a year ago I read a tweet on an agent’s wish list that said she’d love to see a YA Southern Gothic novel. It’s taken a long time for that spark to truly ignite, but my next few stories will be my way of fanning the flames. I always have considered William Faulkner and Eudora Welty to be two of my influences, so it wasn’t too difficult to encourage my Muse to focus her efforts in that direction for a little while. And my sword and sorcery novella, featuring, in the role of brawny manly-man Nordic ultra warrior hero, an overweight teenage black American girl who was taught to scrap and survive by a friend of the family, is about ready for public consumption as well. I’m somewhat excited about that one; that novella forced its way out of my head in just over four days, and now that I’ve cleaned the blood and brains off of it and made it somewhat sensible, I’m eager to go back to her world and write some more.

Story 9/ 52:  Note To Self —