Thursday, October 8, 2015


Whenever I get an idea for a blog post, I jot it down in the notebook I have sitting by my computer.  I do this so that when it comes time to write, I'm not scrounging for ideas.  Most of the time, I write down a title that lets me easily remember just what I wanted to talk about.  However, there are times when I look at what I scribbled and wonder, "What the hell was I thinking about?"

I recently came across that phenomenon when I looked at a title called "Dissociative Properties."  Pondering it, I started to wonder what I meant.  I know I could probably take such a thing and turn it into a halfway decent post, but I'm equally sure that it wouldn't be anywhere close to what I was thinking about when I wrote it down.

This isn't the first time this has happened.  No, it doesn't happen often, but it does occur.  Maybe it's just my age starting to creep in.  Am I really going to have to start writing a brief synopsis of what I was thinking about?  The whole point behind the quick note to myself was so that I could write down the idea and come back to it later.  If I have to start writing out in advance, it's going to defeat part of the purpose.

I know, I know...I'm whining.  I just can't, for the life of me, remember what I wanted to say in conjunction with that title.  Maybe I can ponder it for a while and it'll all come back to me.  Maybe not.  But don't laugh - you may see this one in a future post...

...or I might pretend I never wrote it at all, at which point you'll never get to see it, so there!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How Off Kilter Can You Go?

There's a reason authors write the way we do - readers prefer it.  There's a set style that allows for a comfortable flow of information.  If we stray too far from that general structure, readers can quickly get irritated and put your book down in frustration.

But does that mean we can never deviate from the norm?  I think such an idea is restraining.  It shouldn't be done often, for that detracts from the effect, but if used sparingly, I think a little unconventional writing can enhance your story and get the reader even more into it.

The biggest reason to vary the way we write is to convey the right tone.  Written words are awful at getting across tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, etc.  That's why telling a story as opposed to writing one is always the preferable choice, for we can then make sure we convey the way we want it to be perceived.  We know where the proper emphasis needs to go and just how light or dark the tone should be.

Still, how to do this in our stories?

Let me again go back to one of my favorites, that master writer known as Stephen King.  King peppers his books with out of place ellipses and paragraph structures that look totally random, but when taken within the context of the novel, help set the right mood.

Most of us aren't as good as King, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  Without experience, we'll never master this aspect of storytelling.  What I suggest is to start small - try sprinkling in italics or the occasional odd use of punctuation.  Then, give it to a beta-reader to read and see if they get your meaning.  If you have an honest beta-reader, that person will quickly let you know if you get annoying.  As you gain confidence and get more comfortable with what you want to do, you can spice up a story for publication with such things(please note that I said "spice up," not "overload with chili peppers and curry...a little bit goes a long way).

A large number of those "in the know" in traditional publishing warn against this, but I think it's because they've seen too many newbies overload their stuff with unconventional writing, so much so that it loses effect.  You want to dab a few spots into your work, not saturate it(I also believe that they're afraid of the new, which is why they shy away from it).  I won't tell you to throw caution to the wind, but if you look outside to see just how hard that wind is blowing, you might be surprised by what you can get away with, and that will make you a better writer.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I Like It Raw

Having finished Fight Or Flight about a month ago, I thought about all the things I liked writing it.  They turned out to be the same things I liked when I wrote Akeldama, Salvation Day, Wrongful Death, Schism, and Homecoming - they were fruits of the imagination in the most pure form.  They spun right out of my head, with nothing holding back the words as they flowed.

It's the completely raw nature of writing a first draft that I enjoy.  A tip for all you writers out there - don't try to edit while you write the first draft.  Let things go, knowing that you'll have to change them later.  However, if you start to interrupt the creative process by editing as you write, you'll turn into the centipede that falls over when it starts thinking about walking.  It'll sap much needed energy from just getting it out on paper.

Some of what you write in a first draft will require editing, but that's for another time and after you've had a chance to decompress.  Your goal in your first draft has to be getting everything onto paper.  Your story is like a lump of clay you have to shape and mold into a grand piece of art, but the first time you shape it isn't the time to take a beveled edge and make it exquisite.  Instead, it's the time you form the rough shape of what you hope it'll eventually turn into.

All of my novels have extraneous parts.  All have certain scenes that will need to be changed or pieces added to provide tone.  However, that's for later.  Trying to sculpt a masterpiece on the first go is an exhausting process that takes all the fun out of writing.  I'll bet when you got all hyped up to write that first draft, it wasn't because you were excited to have your energy drained.

Just let your creative juices flow freely.  Yes, it'll create a mess that you'll have to clean up later, but so what?  That's the stage of writing that's the most fun, so why take away from it?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cocky Writing

Writers are creatures of ego.  We have to be egotistical to think that we can tell a story in a way that's enjoyable to others.  There's nothing wrong with being a touch egotistical - after all, we all want our surgeon or lawyer to think he or she is the best.  However, we run into problems when that cockiness lets us breeze through a story so confidently that we forget to tell something others will think is worth hearing.

There have been times I've sauntered through a story, feeling oh-so-good about myself and my abilities, only to come back to it later and discover that it sucked out loud.  Such a discovery always crushes me, and I end up wondering what the hell just happened.

In a nutshell, my ego happened.

My descriptions will get far too brief, or the tone will take on an air of condescension(for the record, never talk down to the audience - they hate that).  I've thought, "Who is this asshole?"  Then I think back to when I was writing, and I remember that I thought I could do no wrong, that everyone would just "get it" and I'd be set.

While we're egotistical creatures, there's something to be said for having a dose of insecurity.  Insecurity helps push us to be a little bit better, and it compels me to go back through my work to make sure I conveyed both the story and tone I wanted to.

I think that learning some humility comes with writing experience.  Stephen King said, during his introduction of The Shining on a later printing, that there was a cockiness in the writing that began to grate on him as he matured.  We've all been there, but it takes time to shrug off that arrogance so we can focus on writing a good story.  Just remember that when you think you have it all down, life, and the audience, are going to find a way to bring you back to Earth...and it won't always be fun.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Advancing Through Dialogue, Narrative, Or Action?

While writing Fight or Flight, one of the biggest obstacles I've faced is how to advance the story.  There's a bunch of information to get out there, and sometimes I don't know how to get from here to there.  To my way of thinking, there are three ways to do it - dialogue(characters speaking to each other), narrative(I can just tell you), and action(showing the characters doing something).

The way I normally like to do it is through mostly action, with some reliance on dialogue.  It keeps the story fresh and in the moment.  However, Fight Or Flight takes place over 73 years, and I can't write a three million word tome that would encompass all of that.  Therefore, I've had to rely on narrative a great deal more than I usually do.

It has forced me to prioritize which parts of the story get action.  How important is the acquisition of the materials needed to build the escape ship?  The main character loses his wife and boy but finds a new wife and has more children.  How much of each relationship can I focus on?

Sometimes I have the characters reveal important plot points with dialogue, but that can only take you so far because it's too similar to narrative.  The only real difference is that characters talk to each other about it rather than allow me to do so as the omniscient narrator.

These things seem to me to be dictated by time and breadth of the novel.  A story like Salvation Day is continuous and can be told by following a character along each step of the journey.  That lends itself to action, which, if it can be done, is by far the best way to tell a story.  In Fight Or Flight, 73 years from beginning to end doesn't allow that.

This is where a writer must be organized.  Flying by the seat of your pants just won't work because you'll forget what's important for the audience to know.  This will lead to either taking the reader down an unimportant rat hole, or it will lead to skipping over large parts of the story that are important.  By figuring out in advance what to tell and what to merely mention, a writer can save himself a lot of struggle.  Since getting to the end is a struggle anyway, why add more than necessary?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Onyx Cluster

After finishing my last novel roughly a month ago, I'm back at it.  I've started writing The Onyx Cluster, and this one promises to be my most bizarre novel to date.

I got the idea for The Onyx Cluster from a dream.  In that dream, I was wandering around a post-apocalyptic wasteland following a nuclear war.  Everything was pretty much as you'd expect - buildings shattered, the sky darkened, very few people - and I stumbled on a group of folks meeting in a barn in the country.  Of course it was nighttime, and, not wanting to disturb them, I hid in the hayloft of this barn and listened to what they were saying.

What they said proved uninteresting that I don't remember what it was.  However, it was the next part that sent chills through my spine, for just as their meeting was winding down, a group of phantoms appeared out of nowhere and sliced the group to death.  Most of them just showed up behind people and slit their throats.  Terrified, I tried hiding under the straw in the hayloft, but the wood gave way and I fell to the floor.  One of the phantoms looked at me while I stared back.  Its expression was mostly blank, but there was the faintest trace of a smirk indicating amusement.  As I stared at it again, I saw something else.

It's eyes were bright white.

No, not the white you get from a lamp, but rather from someone with no irises or pupils, and it was as if there was a small light behind them.  I don't know what it was, but this was the aspect that scared me the most.  I got the distinct impression it knew me before it, along with all the others, simply vanished into nothingness.

After waking up and making sure I was still sane, I got to wondering about the dream.  Where would such creatures come from?  Why would they attack a group of innocent people who looked like they couldn't threaten anyone?  Moreover, how did this thing know me, and why did it let me go?  As a writer, I knew I had the bones to a novel.

I still can't break the plot down to a single sentence yet, although I'm confident I'll get there.  The path from beginning to end in this book is going to go down some bizarre roads.  I'll have to throw "normal" out the window and focus on sanity being trapped in an insane world.

Given that I've already written over 20,000 words, I feel I have a great head start.  Some of what I wrote will have to change, but the foundation is there.  This one should come out to around 90,000 words, so if I can stay as focused here as I was on Fight Or Flight, I'll be finished by Thanksgiving.  That will be tough, but it's doable.  If nothing else, it'll be fun trying.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

An Abrupt Shift

You know how you're cruising along in your writing, just happy as a clam, when something comes along and shakes you up?  Sometimes you aren't even sure what it is, but you know it's out there, and it won't go away just by your ignoring it.

Then I'm in a cellar groping for the light switch.  I know it's here somewhere, but I just can't find the darn thing.  If I don't find that switch pretty soon, I'll have to leave without my favorite bottle of wine.  Sure, I can live without it, but that would be a tragedy.

Okay, some of you are wondering, What the hell just happened there?

What I did above may have been a bit crude, but I did it to illustrate the jarring shift in mindset when you start down one path, only to be pulled down another by the author.  I see writers using this technique sometimes.  I don't always agree that this is the best method for snapping the audience out of their state of complacency, but it can certainly re-focus them.

Harry Turtledove, to me, is one of the masters of this.  I love his books, mostly because he advances the action through character development.  Sometimes, however, he swings between characters and action so much that you get whiplash.  In his Great War series, he often takes the action and pushes it back and forth in ways that keep us guessing.  One moment you're with General Custer and about to make a breakthrough in the trenches in Tennessee, and the next you're out at sea trying to enforce a blockade.  If nothing else, it keeps you as the reader on your toes.

Unfortunately, not many are capable of using this technique in the right way, and since there is no one "right" way, what I mean is when the situation dictates.  It's hard to break the audience from its complacency, and an abrupt shift can sometimes do that.  But if it's done improperly - like when your action is rolling towards a climax - it can really piss off your reader.  Folks like a payoff, and if you use an abrupt shift at the wrong time, it's like pulling out early...the satisfaction is never quite the same.

This is where the art of writing comes in rather than the science.  You've got to know your story, as well as your audience.  What will they tolerate?  Can you bring things back under control, or did you just make someone throw the book across the room in disgust?  If you want to get this right, you have to experiment, and you have to hand choose your audience to see if they pick up on it the way you want them to.  Or you could try it after you've established yourself and want to shake things up, but try it at the wrong point and all you'll do is alienate people...and people who you alienate aren't likely to buy your next book.

In other words, be daring...but be carefully daring.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Timing & Pacing

One of the hardest things for a writer to figure out is how to pace a novel.  It's never "easy," but  it's easier when you're writing a start-to-finish book that takes place over a relatively short period of time - you can go from one event to the next without breaking stride.  Even in Salvation Day, though, it was tough; I had certain parts of the story that were supposed to drag, while another portion was written in such a way as to induce a sense of anxiety and near panic with its frantic pace.

It gets considerably more challenging when your story simply takes too long a time period to tell like that.  As much as I might be interested in every aspect of how a character does something, neither I nor the audience have the patience for a two million word novel that covers half a century.

That was my biggest challenge with Fight Or Flight.  The entire story evolves over the course of 73 years.  Since even the main part of the story takes "only" 25 years, I still had to pick and choose what to tell and in how much detail.  Charge in too hard, and changing the timing will disrupt the reader.  Gloss over too much and the reader will wonder what happened in the intervening time.

The balance I tried to strike dealt with picking out the key events of the tale while not getting too into the nitty gritty of any of them.  I had to accept that doing this would mean the book would be fast paced, even as large as it was.  That made character development difficult since I couldn't get too into the weeds if I wanted the story to move along.  I could only give hints of personality traits, so with the possible exception of the main character, we don't get an up close and personal view of anyone.

Even those events I picked out had to advance the larger plotline more than usual.  Going down rat holes as I've been wont to do in other books was no longer an option.  If I spent too much time on any particular battle or discovery, it risked throwing off the effect that a grand arc needed.

Of course, Fight Or Flight is in a first draft format right now, and it's very raw.  My general rule is to put something away for a while before re-reading and editing, so it's possible I could get back into it in a year and find that it either drags or goes zipping by too fast.  That could force me to start the whole project over...a daunting prospect when you consider the sheer size of this one.

I imagine this won't be the last time I encounter this challenge.  If it was, I'd wonder what happened.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A True Agent Model

My ambivalence about the way that literary agents and publishers operate is no secret.  I think the entire system, in its current form, has become the worst form of crony capitalism, and it's foundation consists of nepotism.  Agents don't represent writers - they represent publishers and occasionally let writers to come to their parties.

This is where the indie publishing movement is so important, for it has the potential to upend the whole dynamic.  As technology allows more and more writers to gain access to the audience with quality work that bypasses the traditional publisher, the system will be forced to innovate or die.  That will mean that the system of literary agents will have to adapt as well.

Most agents are wanna-be writers themselves.  They hold a great number of literary degrees, but I want someone who can represent me in legal and intellectual property negotiations with large companies, not another book critic.  Sure, the ability to appreciate written work is a "nice to have," but it's not fundamentally necessary to the position.  What many agents don't seem to get is that publishers are exploiting them - they've outsourced their own editorial and selection processes to these agents.  Getting others to do their work at no expense to themselves is the dream of every business, for it allows more money to flow into private coffers.

That's how agents became an extension of publishing houses.  Publishers allow the agents to pick which novels are worthy.  And since agents have essentially become subsidiary employees of publishing houses, they have a vested interest in keeping publishers, rather than writers, happy.  Face it - how long would you tolerate an employee who stubbornly refused to argue only on your behalf?  By going against the grain, agents risk losing out on vital contacts within the industry, ie - employment.

If the indie movement has any impact, it can be in the way agents and publishers have to deal.  More publishers are looking to the indie market as a sort of "minor league" in finding talent that has already proven the ability to be successful.  Friends of mine who have sold well have been contacted out of the blue by literary agents with the promise of a deal with some big name company.  I promise that any agent that contacted me would get one question.  An inability to satisfactorily answer that question would lead to the end of the contact.

What is your legal background in negotiating intellectual property contracts?

For that's what an agent does.  I have beta readers I can ask for advice regarding a piece of work.  Since reading tastes are subjective, I don't view any one agent's critique as any more valid than that of a beta-reader.  However, my beta-readers lack negotiating skills and a practical knowledge of contract law, and that's the expertise I would require.  Publishers have armies of lawyers working for them to help fine tune the points of a contract in order to provide maximum benefit to the house.  They sneak in things like royalty rates that pay only every six months, exclusive rights of first refusal that limit author abilities to branch out and produce more product, and print runs that can limit reach to an audience or the writer's ability to see if his or her work can make a larger impact outside of the short window a publisher grants.  I want someone on my side who has the same level of insight in order to get a deal more beneficial to me - maybe I want to be paid monthly; maybe I want the publisher to release rights back to me if the run goes out of print for more than six months; perhaps I just want the first leg of a book tour to be paid for.  Whatever it is, I want someone arguing for me, not taking whatever is given to them.

Start looking beyond those with MFAs as potential agents.  An agent with an MFA may be able to help you write a little better, but an agent with a law degree will help you get a better deal.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Character Enunciation

The way we talk helps give all of us personality.  It's one of the main ways people identify us, so shouldn't it play a big part in any story?

The problem comes from how you portray this.  With rare exception, any writer that tries to display an accent in print is going to walk away looking like an idiot.  One can only write, "How de ye like de taste of me soop" so many times before the reader gets irritated.  It's easier on both the writer and the audience to write, "How do you like the taste of my soup?" she asked in a thick Scottish accent.

However, there's something to be said for the way a character speaks.  This adds personality, so there's got to be a way to portray it.

I try to do so without going overboard.  I might use "gonna" instead of "going to," just like I might use "coulda" instead of "could've."  I also toss in things like a character never using contractions or engaging with unnecessarily long words.  Either of these techniques can denote either redneckery(yes, I just made that word up - YAY ME!) or snobbery.  After all, when someone chooses to pronounce every single syllable and will not stoop so low as to willingly use contractions, that shows they are more aware of their language and status in life(imagine I just said the previous sentence while lifting my chin slightly).

It's a balance, but it can't be ignored, for the way we speak is such a big part of how others see us.  Therefore, it has to be part of our writing as well.  Sure, you could ignore it and describe every aspect with an abundance of adjectives and adverbs, but that can also get tedious.  Besides which, isn't that a bit lazy?  We should try and stretch ourselves as writers to see if we can demonstrate linguistic personality rather than simply talk about it.