Category Archives: writing

The Hard Part

Writer Fuel

It’s not the waiting.  It’s figuring out what to do to pass the time.  I’ve finished-finished a book, and like a well-groomed orangutan, it’s lumbering off into the distance to make a life for itself.  So, it’s time to start the dog-and-monkey show all over again, isn’t it?

I have another manuscript partially-edited that I’m dying to sharpen and spit shine until it and Mr Clean’s head are virtually indistinguishable, but I just finished that process.  As much as I love to edit, it’s too much like being a slave-rower on a Norse warship to want to get back onto the boat right now.

So I’m torn between starting another novel project and starting a short fiction piece.  Now, I’m awful with short fiction; at WorldCon this year, I heard (again) the oft-touted advice that short fiction is a great way to hone the skills needed to write novels.  Yet, someone (I think it was Patrick Nielsen-Hayden?) also added the caveat that some people simply aren’t great at short fiction, and this should not be a discouragement.  Still, the practice can’t hurt.

Or should I try to hit my stride and see how far I can break into a new world of characters before Nanowrimo swallows me up?  I’ve got two great ideas for novels to write this year, and whichever one I don’t write in November, I might write before and after November.

Ideas are cheap: time is expensive.  Which reminds me I need to get cracking if I want to finish that Wheel of Time reread by January.

Finally Friday

I could have sworn yesterday was Friday. Come to find out I was gravely mistaken on the subject. That’s what happens when you spend part of your week at the dentist.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Either way, it’s Finally Friday. I am going to spend the weekend on pins and needles, as my wife is now less than a week away from her due date! Baby Velociraptor could come at any time!

Talk about nerve wracking; it makes me want to bottle this feeling up and ship it to one of my characters. Waiting for the highly-anticipated is one of those universal ‘human’ things.

To pass my time, I’ll be playing the Rift beta until tomorrow, and then the Magicka demo, which is just about the most fun you can have with a semi-broken game for $10. I’m hoping Paradox can get their stuff together soon, because I’m not buying it until I’m positive I can play it with my friends.

And, of course, Baby Velociraptor could change these plans in a heartbeat!

New Life, New Topics

I’m going to try a posting schedule to see how that works out for me. It’s going to be somewhat ambitious, but I’ve also got some structure based around each day, so hopefully in the long run I’ll be able to keep it up. I’d also love to write some posts in advance, which I tried to do and failed at already once today.

It’s a learning process, I suppose.

I was really inspired by this post, in which writer Dawn Rae Miller comes to the conclusion that writers who want to attract readers need to cut back the writing about writing.

And it makes sense. As much as I love my fellow writers, the internet is full of other avenues for those connections. As such, I’d rather my blog be more about me and less about my craft. I’d rather it be about things I find interesting, and as such things I hope other people would find interesting.

It’s something I was nervous about from the beginning, and so the post sort of opened up a new world for me.

As I started to think about it, I expect writer blogs to reflect the writer as a person – Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, John Scalzi, and John Green are all great examples.

I will probably continue to write about writing from time to time. I still see the value in it, and as such my new posting schedule allows me some room for flexibility. It’s a good thing to expose the writing process once in a while, especially when one is trying to navigate the perils and pitfalls within the publishing industry.

Cause this one is a doozy.

Behind Enemy Lines

When I was a lad, I enjoyed few things more than devouring a good book. And I had a thing for series books, too, just as I do now; it’s hard for me to get away from a group of characters that I’ve invested my time and energy into, sometimes even if I didn’t even particularly care for them. It was like a high: a comforting rush of experience and familiarity that I could tap into when I needed it.

Of course, being so voracious meant that, on occasion, I had to be less-than-discriminating with my literary selections. To-wit: I was a Babysitter’s Club junkie. I blame my sister for having the books in the house, but I read them to death and back again, after falling off the Boxcar Children train. Oh, I kept up with Encyclopedia Brown and Sherlock Holmes, and a bevy of others, but the BSC books were my guilty pleasure. I think Ms. Martin might have taken some small enjoyment out of that.

And so it’s not all that surprising to me that I’ve been hooked onto another series that might be seen as non-standard reading for a twenty-something fantasy writer. It’s got vampires in it. And romance. No Cullens, true, but vampires and romance nonetheless. I started in on it as “research” outside of my own genre and style, and things got out of hand from there.

Right now Para-Rom is hotter, trend-wise, than the surface of the sun. I imagine the other genres looking on with simmering jealousy at all the attention the cute little vampires and werewolves and angels are getting. But really, I’m starting to wonder why all the fuss. That’s what started me in on the reading in the first place: what’s so different?

I mean, you’ve got some elements of magic and wonder in mainstream Fantasy and Para-Rom, but (at the risk of evoking stereotypes) I get the feeling the target demographics for each are discrete groups. And isn’t that the heart of the whole boy-book/girl-book argument? We’re writing books to target niches because they tell us to, because that’s what the great intangible “they” can sell.

It’s easy to forget there’s an entire world outside your front door. Out THERE. Where the BAD VAMPIRES live.

Speaking of worlds: I’ve noticed that the worldbuilding in this series is actually quite good, and it helps underline the points I’ve made before: worldbuilding is vital even if your story takes place on planet Earth, which is where this series does. Of course, this series does require some fantasy-style detail work, since it’s technically a Para-Rom, but the details are well done.

It’s been refreshing to get outside of my genre to see what else is possible and maybe bring back a morsel or two to chew on. And once this is all over I’ll undoubtedly finish one of the doorstoppers I’ve been meaning to get to. (With apologies to Brandon Sanderson, I still haven’t finished A Way of Kings.) But for now, my “research” is too much fun to give up.

Whatcha Got Cookin’?

It takes me about the length of a George RR Martin novel release cycle to come up with a good idea for a novel or a topic I want to blog about, in part, I think, because I worry.

Every idea starts with a thick, flaky crust of “this has already been done.” If I think I can break through the crust, I keep at it; otherwise, I throw it away and wait for another idea to throw itself in front of the blog. I discard a lot of ideas this way, and maybe I shouldn’t – what if I’m just being lazy?

Sometimes an idea that sounds derivative at its core (“magical girl discovers her powers and saves the world”) can be interesting if written well. Add a heaping scoop of creativity and maybe a fresh twist of writer juice, whatever that is; maybe we don’t want to know.

But old ideas are redone in new ways all the time – it’s the only explanation I have for why vampire books are still popular after Twilight: when something works, it works.

So turn your “okay idea” into your personal Jerry Maguire. Help your idea help you.

You had it at hello.

The metaphor’s reaching, but you get the idea. All the core stories that could be written, have been. The secret is in the new presentation of the material – not as window dressing, or a snap-in set of tropes, but as part and parcel of the whole tale.

Plotting a Plot

I’ve had a couple aspiring writers ask me how to go about crafting a plot for the novels I work on. I realize I’m not exactly Stephen King, but for writers just starting out, it can be encouraging to hear the perspective of someone who’s been in the trenches for some time.

So I thought about how I have been working through my most recent Nanowrimo prep sessions. I do some vague outlining of the events I want to occur, but I don’t have a ‘formula’ for creating a plot.

Or so I thought.

I dug a little deeper and recalled the writing advice I’ve collected from the years – these are the things to keep in mind when working on a plot. When taken together, this advice might sound formulaic, but these steps do not have to be taken in any particular order. You might have more fun if they aren’t.

And if you’ve got a few manuscripts under your belt, this will probably sound all too familiar.

The first thing to remember when plotting out a story is that the first draft is going to suck no matter what you come up with. This morsel should not be distressing: it should actually be freeing. No idea you have is going to be so terrible it will ruin your book.

Imagine you have five shiny ideas: if you believe that your entire book will succeed or fail based on the idea you start with, you’ll feel a lot of unnecessary pressure. Just relax: the editing process will save you. You’ll be able to turn this kernel of an idea into something much greater once you have it all down on paper.

The first draft is the hardest part.

Just start with an idea you’re passionate about. Maybe it’s a scene or a whim or a character you want to explore. The Core Idea. That’s the first thing.

The second thing to address is to determine the wants and desires of your characters (assuming you have an idea who your characters are). Someone desires something. Bella wants Edward. Frodo wants to get rid of this silly ring. Tom Cruise wants to be taken seriously again.

Even if you don’t have characters set in stone, you might still have a pretty good idea of what these desires will be based on your Core Idea.

Whatever the rest of the plot, this is the driving force. This is why we end up rooting for the characters. Many novels end up having multiple characters whose aims end up at cross-purposes, but this doesn’t explicitly have to be the case. Maybe your character is stranded on an island and wants to escape to freedom. One character, one desire.

Just be sure the hopes, wants, and desires are strong: strong enough to act upon. That’s the second thing.

The third thing to prepare are the roadblocks. Your poor darling character is going to get hit by a train. Figuratively. Or literally – I don’t care. The point is, something bad happens. Things get tough somehow. Maybe your character has made a mortal enemy that now endeavors eternal revenge. Whatever.

Your character stranded on the island tries to build a raft and has it utterly destroyed by a storm at the last minute. Or he finds a treasure on the island and is now loathe to leave these vast riches, knowing it will be impossible to come back for them.

Coming up with roadblocks can be challenging, but unless they’re present in the narrative, it’s going to be a boring ride. Nobody wants to read about a character who’s got it made in the shade. We humans are drawn to stories about conflict and triumph, not the tales of people who’ve had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Make sense?

Roadblocks. Conflict. That’s the third thing.

The fourth thing to keep in mind is the Choice. At some point, your character needs to make a decision (or multiple decisions) relating to the roadblocks that appear in your story. Maybe they make the wrong decision. Maybe they pick right. Maybe it’s morally ambiguous. The lead-in to The Choice and the consequences thereof should have a lasting impact on the world around your character.

Maybe rescue comes and your character must decide to stay with the treasure or leave the island forever. Maybe your character resolves to keep trying in spite of adversity: it might seem like a small choice, but it’s still a Choice.

Aside from the conflict, the Choice is what we’re reading for. We want to know how the character fixes everything – or fails to fix everything. The whole book is riding on this. Don’t screw it up. No pressure.

You might want to tie this into the climax, unless you have something even BETTER in store. The Choice doesn’t have to be the climax. Sometimes the climax will directly follow the chain of the events which originated at the Choice.

Whichever way you choose, the Choice should play an important and distinctive role in setting the course of the remainder of the plot. Choice. That’s the fourth thing.

The fifth thing you’ll want to conceive of is how your characters are going to change as a result of these interactions. Do they change? Do they ignore the swirling tides of the goings-on around them? Maybe they become someone different altogether.

This change is also something else readers will be looking for. We like larger-than-life characters who stand out in our heads. Incredulous characters who react to and change (or choose not to change) as a result of the choices made. That’s the fifth thing.

The last thing to remember about plotting a story is that there is no right way to plot a story. Maybe my way doesn’t work for you. Maybe it does. The fun bit about the writing world is how many different approaches we can take to accomplish the same goals.

Whew. That was intense. What are your favorite ways of crafting the plot? Did I leave out anything important?

Nanowrimo Time!

November is full of wonderful things: warm apple cider, this writer’s birthday, beautiful foliage in the treetops…

And National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo is one of my favorite times of the year: it’s a celebration of the Great American Novelist. Everybody wants to write a novel, right? This is the opportunity to embrace the dream.

I started NaNoWriMo in 2003 as a sophomore in college. I’d already finished a couple of terrible manuscripts from my high school days, but those had taken me months and months to finish a first draft. Here was a program claiming writers who could finish one of those in thirty days.

Incredible! People actually DID this?

If I couldn’t finish NaNoWriMo, I told myself, I didn’t have the chops to be a full-time writer. So I prepared an outline, wrote up some character sketches, and hit the ground running on November 1.

All along the way, I taught myself the basics – for real, this time, and not just for my enthusiastic, high-school whims.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. And round about day 20, I crossed the 50,000 word mark! Such a fantastic feeling, the sweet taste of victory. I finished the plot a few days later, convinced that I could really be a novelist, if I tried.

And when I was done, on December 1, I thought it was perfect. I thought it was ready. I ended up submitting it to a contest that summer, with no editing and no revision whatsoever. It failed miserably.

Years and novels later (written both inside and outside of November), I understand the value of the second draft, of revisions, and of not taking my first draft very seriously. NaNoWriMo is what you make of it. Yes, it’s about establishing a schedule. Yes, it’s about getting the butt in the chair and the words on the paper. But it’s also about taking the craft a step further than where you might have otherwise gone with it. Writers are humans too, and we can grow complacent. NaNoWriMo is about breaking that complacency.

Whatever it is, it’s not about having a publishable product at the end of the month. I realize that, now.

But! Even though I’ve learned my lessons, I’m still enamored with NaNoWriMo after all these years. I’ve made some great writerly friends this way, and I enjoy the Instant Support Group ™ that comes along with the scene.

This year I’m setting my WIP aside for a month to write something challenging: a normal YA. No fantasy. No steampunk. No sci-fi. And if I win, and I write my 50,000 words, I’m going to start in on the steampunk sequel I’ve been itching to write since I’ve finished up revisions on the first one.

And once November is over, right or wrong, finished or not, it’s right back into the WIP. Hopefully by January I’ll have so many first drafts, next year can be revision city. I do enjoy the editing process… but that’s another post.

So here’s to National Novel Writing Month! To a glorious thirty days of noveling like nobody’s watching! To learning new things and stretching one’s boundaries!

After all, that’s what the month is about: attempting the previously improbable.

The Appeal of Steampunk

Today Tor’s blog asks readers to comment on the appeal of Steampunk. Take a look-see here .

My comments, reproduced for posterity:

Steam power brought in the beginning of a new age in technology, much like the advent of the computer has in our own era. There’s a sense of wonder and unbridled enthusiasm. “We can do anything, and nuts to he who says otherwise” seems to be the motto of the day.

It’s dynamic, it’s elegant, and it’s unapologetically fun. Hiding among the leather and the brass and the steam is a world we wished we lived in, a reactionary response to the breakneck speeds at which the technology of the future becomes our reality. We come to terms with the future by living, just for a little while, in the past.

…and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love monocles? I wouldn’t be sad if Victorian fashion made a huge comeback. Just sayin’.

Pumpkin Cake

Fall is my favorite time of year. The temperature’s dropping outside, and a writer’s gotta keep his (or her) strength up. Thankfully, autumn’s bounty provides a wealth of delicious foods. This is one of my favorites.

I originally found this on the Noble Pig blog, here. I present it with a few of my own notes.

Pumpkin Cake

  • 1 can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling!)
  • 1 box yellow cake mix (supposedly you can use any kind of cake mix, but this thought scares me)

Beat well and pour into your pan. I bake according to the box, but ymmv on this one – I err on the side of caution. The Noble Pig not to overbake, and I would agree.

Cider Glaze

  • 1c powdered sugar
  • 3Tbs apple cider
  • pumpkin pie spice to taste

This one is iffy: use more or less of any of these three as you like. Delicious cooking, like good writing, can be subjective just as often as objective. I use cinnamon and nutmeg alone if I’m out of pumpkin pie spice.

And there you have it – pretty simple dish. Great accompanied by a hot cup of coffee or a cold glass of milk. Fiction waits for no one, so if you’re craving a simple dessert while you work on that chapter burning away your finger tips, this one is sure to please.

I think the one we made tonight is already half gone…. whoops.

Genres

The engaging Julie A. Lindsey recently posted some thoughts over on her blog about reading and writing outside of just one genre.

Our world would be lifelessly dull if we only had one genre to read or write in. Instead, we get to enjoy a cornucopia of categories; this also means writers risk crossing the boundaries of the literary world into unfamiliar territory. A lot of editors and agents give off the vibe that when you pick a genre, you’re stuck there for good. Genres make careers and build familiarity with readers.

Some agents don’t even rep all genres: a romance-selling agent would be hard-pressed to accept a crime novel written by one of her clients unless it was romance/crime at its core.

Even the fantasy/YA split in my own writing is enough to reduce the potential number of agents I can seriously consider to rep me. If my adult (or at least not-YA) fantasy agent turns his nose up at a YA offering, I might have a rougher time of it.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t at least try.

I love reading historical fiction and scifi – not as much as fantasy or YA, but enough to consider writing there at some point as well. As I noted in the comments on Julie’s blog, our best recourse is to break out of the genre with a psuedonym (and, as I noted, it worked for someone as successful as Dean Koontz, who was prolific in multiple genres before finally breaking out).

Another way might be to write a genre-blender: Jackson Pearce, notably, is edging out of YA Fantasy to YA Contemporary, and it seems to be going well for her.

Some of us just write better in one genre, and that’s fine. Careers are established and cultivated in more or less one genre, and it’s likely I will never sell a historical fiction. Still, a good book is a good book, and the prose needs to be passionate. I hesitate to suggest it, but as long as the writing is good and the stories work, a writer can be successful in any number of genres. Like most things publishing, it just takes a little elbow grease.