The Small Victories

Welcome back! I’m glad to report that you’re catching me on the upswing, which is a rare and beautiful thing this time of year (I’m usually starting that downward slide into the SAD doldrums right around now). Thankfully, I’m on the mend physically, mentally, and emotionally. The return to work has done me a world of good. I’d love to be that person who works better from home full-time, but I’ve learned that such excursions should be limited for my own mental well-being. For whatever reason, I prefer to work with the sound of other people around me, and some hustle and bustle. I suppose for the same reason that I prefer to work under some pressure – the imposed limitations push me. If ever I were lucky enough to become a full-time fiction writer, I would likely rent an office, or venture to the local coffee shop for work. I suppose that would be cheaper than rent.

Anyway, my point is that I’m doing better, and my brain ticked over at some point last week. I mean, I wrote over 18,000 words, a high point for this year. And this in the midst of taking on a new role at work and an increased workload as a coworker and friend transferred to another department. This week has been a little more difficult as I pick up the pieces, but I’ve found that each small victory bolstered my confidence and gave me what I needed. I think I’ll still hit 10K words this week, as I’m already sitting at the threshold. That was my old goal, and it would be nice to hit that consistently again now that I’m out from under a few shadows. The key is to make the time, and I think I’ve found a way to do it.

Enough of that talk. How about the actual writing? Once upon a time I had thought that the second draft outline of Soul Eater would be finished on Monday, but the job transition and related exhaustion changed those plans. The good news is that it was not a permanent change, and I finished that outline up yesterday. As always, the process surfaced some more ideas and issues with the approach. I know I went over some of this last week, but I feel okay digging into specifics now.

The original idea for this story revolved around a male millennial character who was a video game streamer and worked at the local gas station. His life was going nowhere, and he felt stuck living with his mother, who had moved them out of the city and into the exurbs to offer him a better life. Ethan proved to be a cypher, however; I could get into his surface emotions but had trouble digging deeper into his motivations. In addition to that, I figured out about halfway through the draft that I would need to shift perspectives from Ethan to Morgan, who Ethan pretty much knew as his best friend’s girl. And I learned that Morgan was easier to understand and presented more compelling options for the story. I finished that draft and chewed over the idea of shifting protagonists, as I always end up doing.

Shifting to Morgan has proven to be the right call, and I have made her friend Rosa far more important to the story than the original, while Ethan has receded to victim status. But this has brought a new set of complications: the story feels rushed, and a theme has surfaced that demands finesse. The good news is that the theme is crystal-clear, I just need to decide if I want to follow it to its logical end. I don’t know. If I don’t, I will need to do some more retooling. I’ve decided to let the story sit until next Friday while I chase the Elkmont dragon to its den in the mountains.

And what a den it’s turning out to be. It’s way too early to talk specifics, but this is the one that I mentioned last week that features a group of YouTube actors filming a lost town in the West Virginia mountains. A theme has already surfaced for this one, and I think it might be strong. I’ll have more to report next week on that front.

That’s all for this week. Look for more tomorrow, with the weekly photo post, and thanks for joining me again.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

Or do, if you wish. Either way, I’m happy to be back and among the productive. To tell the story of the last three years of my life would be a lesson in tedium, anxiety, and stress – the kind of caustic stuff that melts the creative impulse. I’m still not fully back on my feet, owing to a move to a new city and a new office, but almost as soon as we set foot on Missouri soil, the juices started flowing again. Memories flooded back; I remember what it felt like to create, to let my fingers dance over the keys and channel the words like some shaman. How nice it was to tap into the creative force underlying the universe, or whatever you want to call it.

In short, the last few years have sucked. We underwent what seemed to be a layoff (only to get my job back at the last moment), not one but two mergers, and an extended period of unease and uncertainty regarding relocation. Our – and I very much include my loving wife in this – lives seemed to be suspended in mid-air. At first I was able to write through this, push it aside and keep going, but as I watched friends exit at work and found myself increasingly isolated in an empty building, I had a hard time bringing my focus back to writing at the end of the day. All I wanted to do was go home and shut the world out, whether it be through reading, video games, or other pursuits.

In the end, a combination of factors brought the muse back to me. One, reading through Mark Frost’s A Secret History of Twin Peaks. It contains a lot of the conspiracy lore and mythos-building that drew me to writing my first few novels, and it reminded me of the promise of weaving my own reality within fiction. It also reminded me of the power of magick, and of seizing control of the reins of your life. It didn’t take long to start to feel the pull toward something new, a framework that helped me to put my chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order.

Then came, of course, the move. While he had relocation assistance and support, it’s hard to imagine a more “seize the day” act than packing up the car and moving across half the country to see if it will all work out.

I came to realize that I had become…well, passive is not the right word. We wanted to relocate from the moment either of the two mergers were announced. More that I had resigned myself to hunkering down and letting fate whip me where it would, so long as it ended with us out of the DC area (something that both of us very much wanted). And so I became less an author of my fate than a pawn at the hands of people with much larger agendas. At some point I lost sight of the fact that I had made this choice to wait and hand things over, and became depressed and resigned. That’s when my output dropped. I think I can pinpoint it to March or April of this year, somewhere in there, because there is a steady downward curve in my word count until July, when I barely wrote at all.

Now, though? I’m back, I think. I’m currently five pages short of finishing my “critique” of Came to Believe, at which point I’ll go back and make the suggested changes and try to hammer it out. Given the massive delays (we’re just about at year four of working on this thing and I want it out the door), I’m likely just going to self-publish it, but we’ll see how I feel when I get there. In the meantime, I’m plotting the antithesis of this story, a quick, pulpy horror novel that I think will be a blast to write.

In the meantime, I intend to check in with you guys more often. Thanks to those of you who are still with me. We’ll see where this ride goes next…

Status Update: Not Much to Update

Well, folks, I’ll own it: seasonal writers’ block is here. Much like Seasonal Affective Disorder, I suffer through a bit of a block around the end of October/beginning of November every year, like clockwork. In the past I relied on lots of light therapy to carry me through, but this year, for some reason, I thought I would be immune. I guess I was falling back on my output being so much higher this year?

Anyway, I was clearly wrong. I’m struggling.

Now keep in mind that my “struggling” still looks like 10,000 words a week, but I need more than that to get through Chapter 25 in anything resembling a timely fashion. I’m back on the light therapy, but I’m not sure how effective it will be over the next few days. So right now I don’t have too much to report past where I was the last time we talked about Chapter 25: working through the first draft. The good news is that it looks to be a relatively short chapter, but I don’t expect to get it finished until December. It sucks, but I’m trying to be patient with myself and not force things. We’ll see where it goes as I ramp up the light therapy. Until then…well, I’m just doing my best. See you Monday.

Update on the Marathon, Getting Back to Work, Fallout Cat

Hey all, had a decent weekend, managed 18 hours for the marathon (really getting too old for much more). Had some regular viewers and fun conversations on the chat and overall felt good about my participation. Will definitely do again next year, assuming the opportunity is still there. Want to thank all of the awesome people who contributed and made this a success. The money will help a lot of children.

In other news, feeling much, much better today and ready to get back to the work of writing. The illness will obviously affect timelines, but I’m not certain how much as of this writing. Hoping to get some time back over the Thanksgiving holiday, but we’ll see how that goes.

With the release of Fallout 4 just around the corner, enjoy Fallout cat.


Part of the Big Plan

Hey all, yeah, I know, I haven’t updated in about a month, maybe a little over. Sorry about that. The last month has been a total and complete…well, morass would be the more PC term, but I think clusterfuck is more appropriate. Started off with a major work disappointment (though that one looks more like a blessing in disguise as days go on), then a busy schedule for a major release at work, then the dual whammy of a bad cold and a leg injury. As you can imagine, productivity took a dip. Last week was the worst, though; imagine a cold where you only develop the token symptoms of a runny nose and rusty voice but your brain is complete and total fuzz and you just want to sleep 23 hours a day. Then imagine trying to write through that mess. Yeah, didn’t happen so much. Not even work, where writing is a simple recitation of facts and analysis, was possible, let alone hard work where I dig into my emotions and experiences.

All in all, a rather unwelcome series of events, but it may have a silver lining, as I returned to the novel yesterday with a full force that I haven’t experienced in quite some time. Let’s catch up on the status, shall we? I think last time we talked I was nearing the finish line on Chapter 16 and had maybe started Chapter 17. Since then, I’ve finished the first draft of Chapter 17, split its two scenes into two separate chapters (as they were quite different in theme), and both embarked upon and finished the second draft of Chapter 17.

Yesterday was all about re-reading the chapter and identifying opportunities to expand upon the emotional textures and themes. I’m hoping to start that third draft today, but we’ll see. It’s going to be a busy day. I do expect this third draft to be the final version before critique review. Thank goodness this chapter didn’t turn into a morass like Chapter 16. That thing was a nightmare, but also much heavier on the emotional undertones. This is a Lindsay and Dean scene, and like all Lindsay and Dean scenes, something of a joy to write. They have a pretty complicated relationship, but damn if I don’t enjoy every moment that they’re together. Perhaps they’re destined for destruction in the long term, but their personalities work so well in the moment.

I’m hoping that Chapter 18 proves just as easy to write, as it’s a retooling of a scene in the first version of the novel wherein Dean goes to Lindsay’s place for the first time.  In the original version, this scene took place relatively early in the novel and followed their third date, which produced a certain level of sexual tension. In the new version they have never been on a date and it’s following the traumatic events of Chapters 15 and 16. In some ways, it’s actually far more intimate, as both characters have undergone recent traumas and developed a level of trust that didn’t exist at that point in the initial version, but at the same time they’re both very leery of sex. The anxieties and questions hanging between them are very different, but should be fun to work through.

Of course, all this focus on Chapters 17 and 18 meant a delay in the blog entries, and again I do apologize for that, but…I think it showed me what’s important. I’m not going to be writing the big entries like I was before, but I certainly can manage a few hundred words on current progress and where things are headed, if nothing else. Hope everyone has been okay?

And The Beat Rolls On…

Late last week, I had just about finished up making my critique group’s suggested changes when a very gracious email arrived from someone else in the group who had been unable to attend the previous meeting (thanks Mark). As previously documented, the first few chapters of my latest work, Came to Believe, have been shuffled around and as such it has become more critical than ever to find the proper balance of having my main character Dean be a dick, but not too much of a dick.

The first attempt didn’t work. Took it to critique group and he was just a little too loathsome. Thankfully, we brainstormed some solutions and inspiration handled the rest; he would face a tug-of-war between his gentle, civilized side and the addict who rages in his mind. One side, the addiction, would bear strong resemblance to his alcoholic father, while the other side would represent the voice of his mother, who always went along to get along.

Mark suggested flipping it: making Dean hate his father and strive not to be the man. That intrigued me a great deal – wouldn’t it be interesting if, in his efforts to escape becoming the beaten, downtrodden codependent father he instead became the addicted mother and didn’t even realize it? So a lot of his projected hatred of women is, in fact, self-loathing. So much potential for the idea I had to go back and re-start Chapters 1-3 yet again.

That’s okay, though. I’m fine with redoing the first handful of chapters as many times as needed to make sure the tone is consistent from the very start. Not all the chapters will need such scrutiny, it’s simply a matter of…okay, think of it like a space shuttle launch. Once they’re in space there’s room to improvise, but the launch phase has to be pulled off flawlessly. Same sort of idea here. The idea has enormous implications for the early going, then kind of ebbs and flows with the tides of the story.

So! One more time through, and it should be done, though Mary has offered to take a look. She’s fresh to the story, so may be a good idea to take her up on it, just to make sure I haven’t missed any other connotations for the decisions.

Then it’s off to that cabin in the woods for Chapter 4, and the portion of the book where Dean learns that he really is an addict and what that means. This is a strangely fun portion of the book, so I’m looking forward to it with great eagerness. Will keep you guys updated on the twists and turns that come.

I Climbed the Mountain, I Turned Around

Quick update today, as I have a lot of stuff to do, but wanted to check in with folks. Went out of town this weekend to see some friends and take care of some things for my parents, which was actually quite fortuitous. You see, I’m writing new scenes set in new places in the Shenandoah Valley and I needed to get a feel for those areas – specifically some scenes set in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, met up with a friend in Bridgewater and we set out toward the Hinton/Briery Branch area and then up into the mountains proper.

While my hometown is near the mountains and not far from West Virginia, I grew up in sort of the “gateway” between the more developed areas of the central Shenandoah Valley and the mountain’s edge. We had a hill in the center of our town, one that bisected the town and gave the two sides of Dayton very distinctive characters, but it was a 15-20 minute drive to get to the mountains proper.

Even with that background, it’s the mountain that calls my name when I need to get away and reset my internal stress levels. So, we took the winding roads back into the country and climbed the mountain. This time my friend, J, suggested going to Reddish Knob, which is somewhat legendary among locals but which I had never actually seen. I didn’t understand that this meant climbing along a ridge and then up to a peak, which sent us through this narrow, winding one-lane road. The whole way up and down I prayed for no one to be coming in the other direction, which worked out great, by the way.

And the top? Well, they call it the parking lot in the sky. The thing about the knob is that from one side you can see Virginia, and on the other West Virginia. Not only that, it’s the highest spot in Virginia, so the view is really breathtaking. The place inspired me, and will make an appearance in a future novel, no doubt.

So, back to work, but I thought I’d share some photos with you, along with some of the graffiti we saw up there:

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Feel the Magic

First off, apologies if I came across as something of a sad sack on the Monday update – I felt a little intimidated by the path ahead of me, but in general pretty excited that I had created something that hit so well with readers. Writing challenges don’t get me down very often, and if so not for long, because scaling those brick walls expands your writing skill to places you had never imagined.

It seems to have happened again, in fact. For those who missed Monday’s post, my critique group took a look at the latest incarnation of Came to Believe, in which the new, more linear method of storytelling revealed the character to be even more of a lecherous pervert. The information was always present in the story, we just also saw a more human side of the character right away. With this stripped away it became more important not to cross the Jerk Line that divides “interesting character” and “complete turnoff”.

The group found him to be more of the latter than the former, but in a good way. Total visceral reaction. My challenge would be bridging the gap, showing Dean as this horribly flawed person who faced a steep uphill battle to a redemption that the reader would want to see, rather than them wishing for his comeuppance.

I think I found that path yesterday, and it brought some new insights to the character and the story. You see, Dean’s back story had always been a struggle. Clearly something terrible happened to him that sparked his sex addiction – that “something” was always clear, even if the reader didn’t discover it for some time, as the recognition is part of his transformation. The problem lay in Dean’s need to obfuscate his own past. In short, it became difficult to dig into the character’s past precisely because he refused to look back. He became a puzzle box that would not open. I had a hard time articulating his home life as a child, or his relationship with his parents. The “interview a character” approach is all fine and well with an open character, but what to do with someone like Dean?

Somehow yesterday that all changed, and while I’m not sure why, I can only be grateful. It turns out that Dean had an overbearing, overly macho, misogynist father who never understood his more sensitive son and pressured him into suppressing his gentler side through verbal threats, intimidation, and outright physical assault. This created a persona that constantly pushes that softer side down while pursuing an ephemeral ideal of the “real man”, a phrase that he uses a lot.

It’s both a subtle and a fundamental change to how the story will be told, with all sorts of implications, especially when it comes to his friendship with a gay male prostitute. That really is the ideal set-up for a guy who’s obsessed with machismo and hookers, and I think it takes the character arc to a new level. I’ll keep you guys updated on how that evolves.

Crossing the Jerk Line

So if you don’t remember, I posted a few weeks back talking about the Jerk Line – i.e., that mythical line that separates a compelling and deeply flawed character from a deeply flawed character that is just impossible to watch. This is the question I asked:

…How do you find that line where a character goes from sleazy but interesting to just a total turn-off slime ball? I call it the Jerk Line. It’s a valid question more than ever now that I’ve transformed Came to Believe into a more linear story.

At the time, my main concern was whether my protagonist crossed the line from being an interesting character to someone who turns off the reader so much that they aren’t going to stick around for his redemption. I didn’t have a good feel for how much was too much, having never really attempted this before.

I believe I have my answer now.

You see, yesterday was my return to our critique group (I’d been out for all of June and a good portion of July owing to the move). Loved being back and while it took me some time to regain my groove in brainstorming new elements, I think we came up with some great solutions for everyone’s work.

Then came my chapters, and…well, it’s not all bad. The good, nay great, news is that Dean brought forth a visceral reaction in the group. He evoked emotions! Very good thing. The bad news? They were negative reactions. Strong negative reactions. I was told that he’s a slimy, creepy misogynist jerk – and fair enough, he is, and begins to change almost immediately, starting with Chapter 3, but there’s an issue with getting the reader to Chapter 3.

So we talked this over. I checked on where the problems start and at what point it becomes too much to continue. Thankfully, I think I have a plan on how to rewrite the first chapter with the idea of softening him slightly and providing an intriguing hook for the reader, one that makes you wonder just what the hell is going on with this man and what turned him into such a cold monster. The key lies in letting the mask slip a few times and showing the wounded child hidden inside this raging, egotistical man. There’s a good way to do this, to show the war that goes on inside his head, it’s just a matter of finessing it. That’s what I’ll be focusing on over the next few days, then will run it by some folks to see what they think. Hopefully it will all come together. I sure hope so, as I’d hate the book to die before it even gets off the ground. More as I work this chapter.

Why I’ll Never be “Famous”….and Why I’m Okay With It

Bit of an epiphany this morning, and a good one, though some might not see it that way. All started when I checked my mail this morning and found the latest post from Karen Cioffi. For those who don’t know, Karen writes a wonderful blog about book marketing and whatnot, a real essential during my morning walks. Regardless of your feelings on the topic of book marketing, I suggest that any author subscribe, as she covers some handy topics and offers a lot of useful information. Even as a cranky author who refuses to define his success in terms of sales and reach, I think it’s important to to stay on top of what’s “expected” these days.

This morning Karen got my attention by publishing an article about the importance of an author’s online platform and its effect on an author’s success with finding a publisher. These include some metrics of the numbers that publishers like to see before taking on an author. I suggest you read the article, but the crux of it is that publishers like to see, at a minimum:

-5,000 newsletter subscribers
-Speaking to 1,000 people a year (this is optional)
-If you’re self-published, sales of at least 2,000 a year

Here’s how she sums it up:

Writers are no longer simply writers. Writers are now a business with a marketing plan and hopefully a marketing budget. Authors now need to allocate a significant amount of time toward marketing themselves and their products.

I suspect these numbers may be a little different with smaller publishers, but they seem to check out, and that statement is pretty much iron-clad by this point. Here’s the problem, or rather my problem: it’s reality, but the reality makes me want to rebel against the whole damned establishment.

Ani Difranco once said that if you don’t want to end up working for the man, you have to find an alternate plan, and I suppose that’s where I am at this point.

If I’ve learned one thing about myself over the last three years, it’s that I’m not a marketer. Oh, sure, I go through the motions and technically this would be a marketing activity, but I find the process tiresome. More importantly, I find that it diminishes the time I can spend writing new fiction, which is a sin in my mind.

I’ve spent the last year pushing aside the compelling push to market my work and instead focused on writing. Did it improve sales? Hell no. Did it make me happier and better at my craft? You bet. Oh, and During that time, I cannot recall a single instance where I would have been happier going through the marketing motions rather than writing.

Oh, sure, a pang struck here or there, a little voice telling me that I wasn’t doing “what it takes to make it”, but each and every time that came from a place of fear, not a place of joy.

You know what came from a place of joy? Writing.

Not every single time, true. Sometimes it’s punching in and punching out, doing the lunchbox work of the craft, but regardless of my commitment to any particular day’s work, my quality of my life appreciably diminishes when I don’t write. The world’s edges become harsher, and I lose touch with myself in ways that frighten me.

Simply put, writing is in my blood and part of my psyche. I wouldn’t stop even if I never sold another book in my life. Would it be awesome for more people to read my stuff? Absolutely, but the characters come first.

And so, I do not expect to find much “success”, but who knows. Stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, work on Came to Believe continues. I finished editing all of Chapter 1 and most of Chapter 2 and now leave them to the hands of my critique group while I push forward. I’ll talk about some of their suggested changes on Monday.