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.

FalloutCat

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.

Re-Invention is Fun

Character re-imaginings are a funny thing. You’d think I’d have gotten used to the concept by now, as I’ve done so many of them. Hell, Room 3 turned out to be a never-ending exercise in re-inventing those characters and while it turned out great, the characters had become radically different people by the end of the writing process, often of “their own” volition.

That’s the thing about character re-inventions: nine times out of ten, they seem to happen on their own. Take my most recent one, for example. In the original draft, I had crafted Stephen as a stick-in-the-mud sexual addiction sponsor, a bit of a narcissist with a difficulty in relating. He happened to be gay, but it wasn’t a main function of his character outside of a few lines with Dean. His sexual addiction centered around writing erotic stories and sleeping with his groupies, but that didn’t come up in anything other than a passing fashion.

In creating the new version of the novel, I decided that Stephen would need to be the one who got Dean into treatment in the first place. Biggest problem? The original Stephen would never have associated with Dean were it not for the group. It required a rethink on the character. I decided he would be arrested at the same time as Dean on an unrelated charge, leading them to meet in jail (which later became a bench waiting to see the court clerk).  The original Stephen would not have ended up in jail, so…time to re-mold the character.

I had envisioned this new version as a redneck in the closet who got picked up on soliciting a male prostitute and had figured out a dodge to get out of jail time – he would propose counseling for sex addiction, a strategy that he would share with Dean.

At some point in writing this, however, the character took a left turn. By the time I finished, he remained an in-the-closet redneck, but one who would moonlight as a gay prostitute. But that’s not all. I needed him to be the kind of guy who talked to strangers as a matter of course, who would always be looking for some advantage in a situation.

Thus Stephen became the guy who wears the “witty” T-shirts, can’t sit still, and sees life as a continuing long con. When we first meet him, he is the kind of guy who wears this shirt:

Half Man

I loved the visual and I loved this quirk, so I put together a collection of shirts that he wears throughout the course of the novel. Now, his character changes during the course of the story and he is born again, becoming a more fitting choice as a sponsor, but some of those parts of his personality don’t change, they just get directed toward “good”. He will continue to wear this style of shirt, just the Christian versions of them. Something like this:

Noah

Annnnyway, he’s a fun character who I look forward to writing. If only all re-imaginings could be such fun. I’ll keep you posted on the character as he progresses.

Perservere

Word of the day right there. It’s been on my mind quite a bit lately. I’m now on…what? Year three of putting my fiction out there, and I’m still here. I’d be amazed that I’ve held on this long, but I’m happier that the thought of quitting has never even occurred to me, even during some of the darker periods of the last few years.

I mean we all know the old cliches about practice making perfect or practice getting you to Carnegie or getting you on the moon or whatever. I’m not 100% a believer in those old hoary chestnuts, as you’re always going to be limited by your talent ceiling, but it’s good enough advice for those who don’t know their limits yet. One of my greatest tools for continuing to track my progress is following my word count and trying to hit 10,000 words a week. That’s no mystery, I’ve talked about it here before, but the key is that it’s only one of the tools in my arsenal for understanding my progress.

RunHillEventually a writer should reach a point where she or he can look at the words that they produce, whether they’re first drafts or edits, and be able to clearly delineate their starting point from where they stand at that moment. Perhaps it’s recognizing that the word “was” can be a signpost of a weak sentence. Perhaps it’s a now-natural grasp of the narrative balance of scene-crafting, one that seemed beyond possibility when you started out. It’s all about knowing your weaknesses, attacking them, and tracking your progress.

I think that, more than anything, is key to persevering: understanding that you continue to grow. I’ve been writing for 26 years now and continue to learn and refine my approach. I admit that my greatest writing fear is not failure, it’s an inability to grow and thrive, the fear that someday I could write a novel intrinsically worse than the last one. This is something that happens to all writers at some point, of course, not all novels can be top-shelf, but if there isn’t a sense of progression in style and ability…

Well, I’d try to come back from it, but it haunts me. Anyway, the point is that it seems dumb to quit before you’ve learned all the amazing things that there are to learn about the craft. Perseverance for that fact alone seems worth it.

the-leftovers-hbo-damon-lindelofBut enough about that. Wouldn’t be a post without some stupid pop culture, right? We watched the first episode of The Leftovers the other night. Based on the title alone, I wasn’t expecting much, but I read a few reviews that seemed like it could be stupid spectacle fun in the vein of Under the Dome, so why not, right? It’s Summer, not much else going on now.

Yeah…I’d say pilot got a 6/10 from me. Choppy pacing, most characters are unbelievably boring, and it’s amazing that they could take such an interesting topic and make it so bland. Warning, some spoilers, but…sooo you have an event where a huge chunk of the population disappears without warning or explanation and your pilot episode features such exciting scenes as a hokey teenage party (complete with a bizarre choking/jerking off scene), a town committee meeting, and a really disjointed town parade?

ChokeThe cult started off kind of interesting, though I didn’t care by the end of the episode, and I want to know more about the compound in the middle of the desert with the weird prophet guy, but come on. I could think of far more compelling scenes to fill the gaps of those scenes. If you have to have a teenager as a main character, why not focus on what she’s lost? Instead we get her acting awkwardly, jerking off some guy, and running her hand over a photo. Why did the protagonist, whom I’ve nicknamed Bland Hardgristle, have to be a cop? It’s my understanding that he’s a retired town councilman in the book. Were they really so eager to have their own Walking Dead?

I also would have liked to see the conspiracy theory reaction to this. Where are the run-of-the-mill nutjobs? If there is such a character, he or she didn’t reveal that in the first episode, which is a real lost opportunity.

Anyway. I’m going to give it a go because I’m curious about the explanation for the disappearances. It’s obviously not a by-the-book rapture situation, so they must have something else in common. I just have my misgivings because it didn’t even give me the dumb spectacle of a typical Under the Dome episode. Hook me, Lindelof. Make me a believer. Until then, I’m like the strawmen in the show who stubbornly refuse to believe in supernatural forces after a real, honest-to-God rapture occurred.