Once More Into the Breach

It’s funny how flashes of insight arrive. Sometimes you work hard at them and try to coax them out of their burrows to play and they still refuse to pop out. Other times they hit you while you’re writing a blowjob scene walking across a parking lot, I mean insight has a pretty sick sense of humor, you know?

And incidentally, yes, I did happen to be writing a scene like that as I went for a short walk. My method of walking and writing sometimes yields some really odd juxtapositions, but it’s really working for me, so…whatever.

But I’m here to talk about insights and not blowjobs, and for that I apologize to the reader. Perhaps a good description would be more entertaining than an update on the latest insanity to beat me over the head, but where’s the fun in that?

Okay, so I’ve been writing for a few days about a different approach to the novel, threading flashbacks or resequencing or whatnot and I realized that my dissatisfaction lay at a more fundamental level: the pacing sucked. Hard. It was right in front of my face the whole time and I didn’t realize it. My critique group kind of walked around it at one point, telling me that they sometimes felt like they were being dragged back to the present where everything sucked as opposed to a more vibrant past.

Pacing! That’s the problem right there. I heard it but did not understand. I had gotten so married to the initial opening sentence (and it’s a damn good one, I stick by that) that it had begun to overshadow the rest of the story. Ridiculous, right? Should have been obvious how that one would end, but we do these things to learn just as much as to share our realities.

Anyway. Lesson learned: instead of becoming more convoluted, I needed to flatten the spiral Möbius strip of its plot and understand the true beginning and end of the story. From there I could re-evaluate the peaks and troughs of the story as it flowed. And you know, there’s something compelling to be told there without the hammer of life after Lindsay’s death hitting you over the head. Hell, in this version she may not even die. I’m not certain yet. I think she will, and I think we’ll see infrequent flash-forwards to the time after Lindsay’s death, but I’m not locked into that yet. Essentially, I have to throw out…well, not half of the book, but a big chunk.

Please note that this was an outlined novel, so don’t think that outlining prevents these kinds of things from happening. It’s the nature of writing itself. Sometimes the true gem of the story is buried underneath the trappings and you need to clear the cobwebs to grab it, to ham-handedly mix a metaphor.

Anyway, major restructure, planning which chapters stay and go, and then I move on. I’m still going to finish the first revision, but only those chapters that are staying for the next big version. It’s going to be interesting. I’ll share more of how I think it will work tomorrow. Thanks for bearing with me.

On the Value of Fear and Good Art

This post is kind of a response to something that Marie Loughin said in yesterday’s comments. Her statement, if you haven’t seen it:

There’s a difference between writing novels on an intellectual level vs adventure level vs personal level. I think the most personal are the hardest, because you add in an element of fear along with a deeper need to get it right.

So true, though what surprises me the most isn’t the fear of “getting it out there”, I’ve talked about some of the stuff in the novel with other people before and it’s jumbled enough that it’s not the literal truth; I’m not a sex addict or a dentist. I’ve never had a threesome with a subordinate or been arrested with a prostitute. Those are the surface details of the story that I’m writing, but there’s something rawer and closer to reality just beneath the surface, something that I’ll talk a little bit about as we go through future posts.

I really have two fears when writing this book; the first is of facing demons that I have locked away for one reason or another. This book has brought up previously-unrevealed emotions about events in my life, sentiments that surprise me as they spill out on the page but ring true for what I’ve gone through. I can see how a certain scene in a restaurant might form a dark mirror version of a situation that I found myself in just a few years ago.

It’s an interesting process, but as it went and more of these moments arose I found myself fearing what might get dug up next. Naturally, a great deal of trepidation came with bringing up not one but two of the most traumatic events in my life (in obscured versions of reality), the kind of trepidation that freezes you. I could neither go forward nor backward.

So that’s the first fear that I felt in writing this novel. The second is borne of a concern that I might inadvertently hurt someone that I care about. I have no desire to use fiction as a weapon, to hurt and besmirch others, even those who might have done bad things to me. This means that, as a scene evolves in proxy to a traumatic event, it takes very precise care to avoid implicating someone or reproducing something verbatim from the past. Character and plot are supreme for the story, of course, but those can be guided to some extent and must be guided if it’s in the name of protecting people.

This is a fear. Words have a great deal of power and have to be used wisely; I wouldn’t dare compare them to something deadly like a pistol, but the same principle applies in that when handling the “live ammo” of the past, you must have a healthy, respectful fear of the consequences.

In the end, fear drives good art. Fear of your own mortality, fear of the past, fear of the present, fear of what may never be. That’s not to say that fear is the only emotional driver, it’s simply a powerful one, and I respect it.

You Can’t Go Back Again: Characters as the Psyche

My most recent entry focused on lessons learned about writing during the process of hammering out an initial draft of a new work. Fun entry, and drew a lot of very thoughtful and useful responses. Shannon Mayer’s response, in particular, gave me reason to reflect on just what this writing process means to me. I’ve said before that the writing process is almost a spiritual one for me, though I had trouble putting my finger on just what that meant. Shannon finally answered that question for me, though, when she said that (roughly paraphrased) she learns just as much about herself as the writing process when completing a novel.

Yes, I thought. That’s it. It wasn’t just the matter of refining my writing process or strengthening my writing skills. It was about better understanding some unexplored aspects of my psyche. Obviously every character that really lives and breathes represents a part of ourselves, whether we recognize that fact or like it. Continue reading

Checking the Tally: Announcement and Lessons Learned

Morning, one and all. It’s time to chase the rabbit down the rest of the rabbit hole and get this book finished for release next week. I’ve incorporated the edits from my editor and have a few minor issues that I want to polish one more time; I think this thing may be finished by the end of the day tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m working my marketing plan. I’ve banded together with a few other writers next week to make one last push on the Kayson Cycle, between Monday and Tuesday. Promotion details should be forthcoming, and you writers can expect a follow-up once the dust has settled – I know we’re all trying to figure out what works best.

I’m also happy to announce the Corridors of the Dead promotional launch and giveaway. I’m still working out the details – it will be a system where you can earn a certain number of entries by performing certain tasks, but I have to figure out how many entries to each task. Tasks will include items such as writing about the book on your blog or tweeting about the book – also still under review. The prizes, however? Those I’ve figured out:

  1. First Place will be a $50 Amazon Gift Card (one winner).
  2. Second Place will be a $20 Amazon Gift Card (two winners).
  3. Third Place will be a signed copy of The Corridors of the Dead (three winners).
I’m expecting to have all this figured out tomorrow, so keep your eyes open. In the meantime, I think now is the perfect time to examine the lessons I’ve learned from writing The Corridors of the Dead, from inception to today. There are still a lot more to come from the promotional push, but today I really want to dig into things with a timeline of what has happened and the lessons I’ve learned. Continue reading

Progress Check: The Joy of Writing

As I mentioned yesterday, this is my last post heading into the weekend. I’ll have posts Saturday (another great interview) and Sunday, but tomorrow I’ll be dark while we carry out a site migration. I’m excited about the changes that are coming, and the new features that I’ll be able to offer, some of which I’ve been eyeing since last Summer. More details will come as I roll the features out.

I’ve been puzzling somewhat hard over exactly what I would write about today. What was so important that it would have to hold for two days? I brainstormed. I read around for good blog topics. I racked my brain trying to come up with something great. Then I realized the answer was right in front of my face: write about writing. Continue reading

Let it Ride: Feeling the Process

Today let’s talk about process; specifically, the process of writing. Some of you who have been reading this site for at least a modest amount of time may remember when I began talking about having an idea for a thriller. It was only a few weeks ago, right? It was exciting. I was really into it. I started reading up on conventions of the genre as I plotted the story.

Then I ran into writing reality as the concept revealed itself to be somewhat flawed. I was a little distressed, but not freaking out. I’ve found that this is a normal part of my process. Often the initial idea is good, but it needs a lot of refinement. And by refinement, I don’t mean sitting down up front and thinking through the idea over and over again. It’s kind of something that has to reveal itself, instead. Almost like a lottery scratcher; you scratch the first of those colorful little icons and reveal the basic concept; maybe this is your four-leaf clover or whatever iconography the card is using this time. Then you scratch the second and see how the characters connect to the concept. It may or may not be connected – maybe you get a cherry instead of a clover, but that’s okay, because you only have to match three and you have two more to scratch off.

My point here is that while I had scratched off and revealed a decent idea, the other concepts were other icons. The whole thing was not going to work together until I retooled one or more elements. Back to the drawing board. I’ve talked about that, too, about how I came to understand that the dynamic of the story needed to be inverted from what I had originally envisioned. Again, that’s cool, that happens. At least I figured it up front, rather than what happened with Corridors of the Dead, where I worked out what needed to be changed after writing it, editing it six times, and sending it to agents. Not that I’m bitter!

But that’s exactly what I’m talking about here – how the process of creation changes an original idea. Most people who know me in real life will tell you I’m a huge music buff. I really enjoy finding new bands and new types of music to enjoy. I’m never satisfied with just what I have; there always has to be some new sound or idea that I want to look into. When it comes to bands that I really like, one of my favorite things to do is get ahold of demos (this is easier for some bands than others) or a set of demos. For example, I have a CD of the Beatles that is 20 takes of one song. I’m the only person I know who would sit through that and actually find something compelling and useful here, and it’s the way that the song evolves.

Sometimes you hear how a completely different concept transforms into something else. An aborted song can be tacked onto the end of another song, and eventually become something more than two so-so songs. Since I was once such a huge pumpkin head, here’s an example of a song evolving.

First, we have a raw demo set down in a studio while on tour. Scratch vocals, and some musical elements are different.

Second, we have an acoustic demo recorded at home in the fall of 94, and we can see the vocals evolving.

Finally, the released version (there are at least three more demo versions of this floating around, but I’m trying for an example here, not to bash you over the head).

I think so much of that fascinates me because it’s so similar to the writing process. I mean, it basically is that, rendered as music. I know I constantly take old ideas that might not have worked in some other context and add them to a story that I might be working on at the moment. For example, if someone were to look through my archives, you’d see that the character Jazshael that’s referenced in Corridors of the Dead was actually the protagonist of an abandoned novel from 10 years ago.Some other concepts that came from dreams over the years also got incorporated into Corridors, sometimes unknowingly. Everything has to be fodder.

Of course, sometimes the process just takes you in unexpected directions. Going back to what I was saying about Entanglements, I started off with a concept for what I thought could be a pretty cool thriller, but as I wrote and really got to know the characters, I discovered that while there was some suspense still there (the sense of drive and tension is still very important to the story), there is a paranormal romance buried in there. Needless to say, this was very unexpected. It just…happened. I put two characters together, and their interactions went in a certain direction. They weren’t literally made for each other, and yet they seem to be made for each other all the same.

Now let me preface this by saying that I am the last person to write a paranormal romance. My opinion of Twilight stands: it’s just not good. I’m sure there are great examples of paranormal romance. It’s just not my thing. Which makes me wonder if my own take is going to follow some of the conventions that I observe when reading second-hand reviews. Hell, maybe that’s a good thing. The protagonist isn’t a teenage ~~waifu~~ in her final year of high school who discovers a handsome, older man with a dark secret (and I don’t say this to denigrate the genre, I believe there’s room for every genre and everything under the sun – it’s just my experience). None of that. But you know, put to it? Yeah. This is the definition from Wikipedia:

A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of traditional fantasyscience fiction, or horror.

That’s pretty much it. It’s a love story that happens in another world, in an entirely different context. How did I get there? Like I said, it’s that natural transformation that occurs during writing. The guy notices her hair. She notices how he smells. Etc. It just kind of builds from there. Oh, and throw in a good dash of Stockholm Syndrome, too. That’s going to be wrestled with throughout the course of the book.

That’s just the thing. The process sometimes grabs us and takes us where it wants us to go. You hear writers talking about how they don’t write the story, the story is written through them. It’s true. When you get into a groove and really understand your characters, it happens. So many times I just sit there reading what I’m writing, somewhat bemused. But it’s the story that wants to be told. I think otherwise, it’s dry and lifeless and not true to myself. Obviously, it’s coming from some part of me that needs to express it, and I can already see some echoes in this romance of issues that I’ve deal with in the past. Yes, they come from within, they come from our subconscious and are colored by our experiences, but they’re not always within our conscious control.

My whole point is to remind you to stay open to that process. Be open to the strange and unexpected twists and turns that a story can take. It’s what makes something new and unique. I think we need a lot more new and unique stories. Always.

Be Like the Squirrel: Marketing of the Dead

I finally finished the Art of War for Writers the other day, and since it’s been so influential on this site for such a long time, I thought I owed it at least a bit of a nod. I really enjoyed it; in fact, if anything, it’s almost too dense, as trying to keep in mind all of its teachings is a difficult affair at best. It’s probably something that I’ll need to revisit every now and then, to see how my own perception of some of the wisdom contained within. I thought about going back to review some of what I’d written about the book on this site, but it was way too much to sift through. Even if you’re a writer who rarely reads books about writing, I’d say it’s worth a purchase.

I’m moving on now to a book about self-publishing, which I’m sure will arise from time to time. It’s already given me the inspiration to create a (semi) daily marketing plan of how to reach out and become a little more ingrained into the writing and reading communities.

Which brings me to the real topic of today’s blog, which occurred to me as I was brushing my teeth this morning – funny how and where inspiration strikes. Once upon a time, the idea of putting together a novel seemed nebulous and intimidating. So I evolved a process to go at the goal with smaller, incremental goals. Then it became the act of putting together a coherent novel. So I refined that process and broke things down into even smaller steps. Now I’m at a stage where I have a pretty decent process that works for me and keeps me writing five to six days a week at around 10,000 words a week.

Bringing us back to the ever-tense tooth-brushing, I know this is where things get real. As I was brushing I was thinking about marketing the novel and my “brand” itself and how I had kind of gone about it in a haphazard way. Oh, sure, the website has given me a platform and presence of sorts, but I need to expand it. That’s when it occurred to me to use the same concept that I used for evolving my fiction writing: break it down step-by-step. Make it into smaller goals.

So I pondered…how do I do that? Writing I know. Writing I get. For me, it seems easy enough to look at how a story or an essay is composed, break it down into its component parts, and examine how I could apply those parts to my own process. I think Stephen King said something once about how examining a plot is like taking a look at a fellow mechanic’s work under the hood, and that analogy works a lot for me. I can look at that and just sort of get what they’ve done.

But marketing…well, that’s another beast. It’s not that I don’t think I’m capable. I’m pretty sure I am, but I’m not a natural at it. It’s something that I’m going to actively have to work at learning, and I’m only just starting to get that. With that in mind, where to start on marketing myself?

The answer, I think, is in approaching marketing like my writing. One of my most faithful tools is the weekly word count. I’ve noticed my skill level jumping appreciably week-over-week as I hover around that word count. So why not apply the concept to marketing? Set daily (or cumulative weekly) goals that aren’t too rigid or interfere with my writing, and try to hit those targets as best as I can. It has the benefit of being consistent, keeping my brand from being forgotten, and also of being fairly non-intrusive on my writing life.

So I set up some simple goals today, and will see how well I can live up to them – and if they are, in fact, effective. After that, it’s a matter of tweaking them, just as I have with my writing process.

There’s probably a lesson about life itself to be learned there, trying what works and throwing out what doesn’t, breaking larger goals down into smaller ones and then being adaptable to changes when they come, making the process of achieving just about anything a living, breathing organism.

But that might just be an extrapolation that’s out of this site’s scope. Just an idea. Who can say if it’s something to be expanded upon?

And since it’s Friday, the song which I’m referencing in the title…

You are not…: Examining “Snowflake”

Yesterday I was talking about finding the middle ground between plot outlines and writing by the seat of your pants, and during some research I discovered something called the Snowflake Method. I promised to come back here and take a look at it, and here I am. Aren’t you just lucky?

The basis of the Snowflake approach is that it’s all about design. The creator, Randy Ingermanson, has essentially taken an engineer’s approach to novel-writing by breaking plots down using the same method that he used for software development. I admit, I balked at the concept at first. “Who is this software engineer to tell me how to craft novels?”

But then I actually read his Ten Steps of Design and the philosophy behind them and realized that, not only did he have a pretty good basis for creating those steps, those steps actually reflect a lot of what I already do. I don’t want to pull too much traffic from the guy’s site, as that’s not what I’m here to do at all, but here is the rationale behind his method:

 But before you start writing, you need to get organized. You need to put all those wonderful ideas down on paper in a form you can use. Why? Because your memory is fallible, and your creativity has probably left a lot of holes in your story — holes you need to fill in before you start writing your novel. You need a design document

The ten steps take the story from an initial pitch-style sentence for the core concept of the novel (this is what I sometimes start with; sometimes it’s a scene that’s been in the back of my mind like an itch I just can’t reach) and turn it into a paragraph describing setup, roadblocks, and targeted ending. That moves onto the characters and, by the end of the first week or so, the theory is that you’ll know if the story is broken and needs work. You then continue to expand on what you’ve already created, adding sentences to the paragraph, and more description of the characters.

He also predicates his story structure on having “three major disasters and an ending”, which is just a good a structure as any, I suppose, and a pretty simple way to build enough of a story to entertain the reader. It’s something for me to consider in the future, I suppose.

He goes on to advocate using it not only for just starting out on a novel, but also trying to resurrect a horrible first draft and get to work on a novel rewrite. I have to admit I’m considering using it for the former, as I have a 75% finished novel from a few years back that could use a good rewrite and then be issued.

Oh, being a software engineer, he has also written a piece of software for the purpose of following the snowflake method, but I definitely balk at the price, as it’s $100 without a discount for buying Fiction Writing for Dummies and $50 with that purchase (effectively $65 or so,  depending on where you get the Dummies book). Compare that to Scrivener, which I am currently test-driving, which will be about $40 once the Windows version is ready to go.  It’s just hard to justify that kind of purchase when the process is rather easy to follow on your own.

Overall, though, I like the process, and it seems like a good hybrid between outlining and writing by the seat-of-your-pants. It gives you enough to get started, but doesn’t require you to go overboard with plotting every single move. I tried to stay safely non-specific about some of this stuff because, well, I can understand. I’ve put a lot of work into my own writing process and if I was going to market it, I’d at least want other writers to direct traffic to it. I’d definitely recommend at least checking out the article and seeing if it’s for you, though; I’m going to incorporate some of the stuff that I liked into my 0wn process.

Okay, so the second part of what I wanted to talk about today comes courtesy of, yet again, the Art of War for Writers (have I pumped this book enough yet?). In the book, he suggests viewing your writing as a business and, as such, having a basic business plan and set of goals. Not just for the basis of trying to be businesslike, though it helps I’m sure, but to help narrow your focus and understand just what it is that will help you to achieve your goals. It struck me because I’m kind of reaching that point in my own career. I’ve had an explosion of ideas and concepts, and I see so many paths that I could follow.

One of the most interesting suggestions in the book is to envision yourself ten years from now and imagine what you would want to see looking backwards at your career from this moment. Don’t be afraid to dream too big or crazy – it’s just a general map of where you want to go. He also suggests getting as specific as possible, looking not just for general stuff like “be the published author of X mystery novels” but also “these novels reflect my view on human nature”, etc. There was a time that I would have hated the concept, but today I love it. I’m going to start putting it together very soon, in fact, and will probably post it here.

Last item of business is that I think the sequel for Corridors of the Dead – City of the Dead – is beginning to percolate up from my subconscious. For the last few weeks I’ve had this scene of a man in a sword fight with another man on a snowy plain, and one of the men is suddenly cut down by something from behind. I wasn’t sure what at first. Then other details started to fill in, such as the identity of the unseen killer. Why they were out there in the first place. Etc. Only in the last few days did I start to figure out the identity of the protagonist in the scene, and the purpose for which I was seeing it. Now the elements of the sequel are starting to fall into place nicely, and this scene provides a good method to start the sequel by hitting the ground running. The best part is that I have time to develop other scenes in the novel in the same organic fashion, as Entanglements stands between now and City of the Dead. Still, I’m excited. I think it’s going to be a good one, and that’s all you can really ask for.

Imposing External Order

I’ve been pondering the nature of exactly what art is of late…or rather, from what part of our consciousness art might arise. My writing career, such as it is, began with someone who dove into stories without any sense of direction. It seemed best to let the story dictate its own direction and grow organically. A problem arose, however: this approach made things collapse in on themselves late in the going. After losing a good novel to this when it became a tangled mess, I vowed to become a strict outliner and dictate absolute control over the process and the work. It was pretty successful, too. A few books were written using the process, but now there was a new problem to contend with; namely, that the stories were mechanically sound but had very little heart.

The concept itself and outlining were imbued with my interests, and it’s not as if there was no drive to tell the stories; a story wouldn’t be worth telling if I didn’t care about it. In retrospect, though, there was a definite layer of removal between author and story. So began a process of opening up to the characters and the story itself, once again letting the characters tell their tale, only this time through a first-person perspective and a strong voice and characterization. That layer of removal fell away and things became more engaging, but the problem now seems to be that the story is telling itself.

This is exciting, but also scary – what happens if the end of the story arrives and, yet again, things begin to crumble in on themselves? Is that then the time to assert authorial control? The problem there is that this story has absolutely refused any attempt at outside authorial influence. Every single time that authorial control has crept in, the story has ground to a halt, only picking back up when I realize that undue force is being applied, step back, and allow the characters to tell the story that they wish to tell.

The best thing to do, it seems, is trust in the process. It has been nearly 15 years since that collapse and the situation has changed immensely. Since then, I’ve become a true professional writer and my editing skills have improved immensely. Just a matter of conquering fear.

Today’s featured blog is the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. The layout is pretty great, and there’s loads of information for both writers and readers – great reviews, interviews, and tips! This is the blog I want to have when my blog grows up.