Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stretching For The Limit

I've spoken before about what happens when I reach the end of my outline and try to keep going without structure.  However, I haven't often talked about the reverse - how far in advance should you outline?

When I get an idea for a novel, it starts out very nebulous.  My outline is a way of taking the molten version of that vision and banging it into a more recognizable form before I put it on paper.  I can be patient and find gaps in the story where I need more substance. However, I don't write my outlines in full detail the way Dom Capers used to take detailed notes before halftime of each game he was coaching.  What ends up on paper is more robust and doesn't always follow the outline to the letter.  Part of this is intentional - what fun would it be to know everything that going to happen prior to writing it down?  It allows me to run free with a stray idea that comes along and might fit.

Unfortunately, this also causes problems.  Since my writing can go off in a wildly different direction than the outline, I can waste a lot of valuable time if I outline too far ahead.  I could end up with pages and pages of material that no longer applies, to say nothing of confusing me for continued writing.  Therefore, I have to keep the outline and the writing in sync.

I have little problem visualizing and then writing down the path of a story, but if I see a story going in a different direction once it's on paper, then I follow it, outline be damned. And in an effort to be as efficient as possible, this dictates I cut off my own outline before it grows like the proverbial weed.

To non-writers, this sounds very elitist.  I'm such an "arteest" that I think the story can grow on its own.  I fully realize how arrogant that sounds, but those who've written novel length fiction know just how true it is.  No story comes out the same way twice in an author's head, so that outline and the story it spawned might be two very different tales if one gets too far in front of the other.

So, what to do?  The way I approach things is to outline out no more than 20,000 words in advance, and that's only if I absolutely know where I want to take a novel.  I usually don't go beyond about 10,000 words because I'm well aware that anything beyond that is meaningless - stray electrons will carry it in a direction away from the outline, and that direction will work far greater than what I originally envisioned.  However, I'll soon wind up at the end of the Idea Train, and little good will follow until I outline some more.

Do whatever you as a writer think is best for your story - this is what works for me. Some people can outline in minute detail every aspect of the book they want to write, while others can go from the seat of their pants the entire way(Stephen King is famous for this).  I need things in bite sized chunks so I don't choke.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

Over the past eight months or so, my view of agents has changed considerably.  I've gone from hoping to impress an agent when I first began this journey - believing that to be the only path to success as a writer - to now wondering how they still have jobs in the new era of indie publishing and print on demand.  And as I've gotten more into the new way of looking at things, my distaste for some agents has grown, mostly because they come across as elites who look down their noses at those not part of the country club.

Something I ran across recently has only reinforced that.  Agent Rachelle Gardner has always gotten rave reviews from her clients.  She's been seen as helpful, friendly, and always looking out for their best interests.  Even so, she still had a barely concealed sneer in her work when discussing self publishing.  I wrote it off since I had moved from the path of wanting to go traditional and more along the path of indie publishing. However, this post from her caught my eye.

Here's the key quote:  "I’m excited to join the ranks of self-published authors, so that I can truly know what it’s like on BOTH sides of this publishing world!"

I want to be happy that she is coming into this on her own terms, but part of it truly rubs me raw(if I'm to be honest).  Ms. Gardner, like a lot of other agents, has never given much credence to self publishing, yet now she is doing just that.  My first thought was, "Couldn't she find a traditional publisher for her work?"

The comments section is a mish mash of the usual "Gee, you're so great.  Please think well of me so maybe I can land you as my agent one day," but it was the point of someone in the traditional world, someone who has always advocated the traditional path, now going to indie that made me wonder if the world had truly turned upside down.

I know I shouldn't feel this way.  I should be happy that someone so accomplished has recognized that there is value in the indie world.  However, it's not like she's decided to stop pursuing traditional publishing, nor has she said anything about her barely concealed disdain regarding self publishing in the past.  It almost smacks of, "I'll show everyone just how easy it is, and maybe I'll make some money on the side."

Despite my argumentative personality, there truly isn't much in this world that will set me off at heart.  However, intellectual consistency is one of those things that will do it.  If you've always been on the path of "unemployment checks are for losers," then don't accept them when you get fired.  If you've always been big on "paying taxes is a patriotic duty," then stop trying to squeeze every deduction you can.  When you have a path, stick to that path.  In other words, be consistent with it.  Go down the road you advocate for others with gusto and passion, but don't then choose something else just because it suits you in the moment.  It'd be one thing if Ms. Gardner had seen the light on indie publishing and decided she was done with traditional publishing, but it's her continued adherence to the traditional world while self publishing that irritates me the most.

Yes, this is an immature reaction to someone who is probably a great person, and I'm using her as a vehicle to vent my frustration at all agents/elites who've looked down their noses at the masses.  I won't pretend this is in any way rational or an adult thing to do.  I just get tired of the "Do as I say, not as I do" motif.  I'll be back to sunshine and unicorns on the next post, but I'm going to continue to fume for now.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Grand Themes

(Should our themes be as grand as this canyon?)
I enjoy novels of epic story lines.  Yes, the telling of someone's life story can be a welcome break, but the little kid in me is still reliving an X-Wing Fighter skimming down that trench towards a thermal exhaust port just below the main port, or running along the deck of the USS Cygnus with V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and trying to stay ahead of Dr. Reinhardt and Maximillian  There's something inside me that wants the epic story, the story that not only decides someone's life, but the very future of existence.

Of course, this can be problematic to a writer's career.  There are only so many ways to save the universe, and readers are likely to tire when driven to the brink of breathlessness time and time again.  Stephen King deals with great stories, but it's the rare exception, like The Stand, where the entire world is at stake.  King still manages to make us all feel as if lots of stuff is at stake, even when it's only the lives of a few individuals or a town.

However, despite the difficulties in finding new ways to save the world, I like to "go big."  Salvation Day is about the fate of the universe and whether God Himself would be destroyed.  Akeldama talks about whether or world will be run by humans or monsters, as well as how the betrayal of mankind fits into that box.  Schism asks if our nation can survive the current level of acrimony without splitting right down the middle.

These questions fire my imagination in ways difficult to describe.  I like stories that take us to the edge of destruction, where the consequences don't just involve one man or one city, but rather the entire fate of humanity.  It's these expansive landscapes that make me feel the most fulfilled for some reason(insert psychiatrist's comment about feelings of inadequacy).  Maybe it's because we all seem so insignificant in the real world that we look to our books to create a universe where we can deal with the larger questions.

JK Rowling saw a world where the world's most evil wizard tried to take over the wizarding world, and her hero had to figure out how to thwart him.  I believe that most readers loved getting swept away by that vision, just as they did with the implications in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.  It gives us a sense of being involved, of mattering.  It's the rare person who actually has real impact on a grand scale, so our books make us feel like we have influence over a world we often feel helpless to control.

What world changing scenarios do you envision or write about?  Are they ways to be heroic, or simply ways to control an uncontrollable world?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Granting Advantage

Patricia Cornwell is a best-selling author whose books have sold over 100 million copies around the world.  Her stories are centered on crime dramas, and most would know her Kay Scarpetta series.  Some of her books include Postmortem, Body of Evidence, and Blow Fly.  Surely someone so accomplished would have it made and never need to worry about money ever again, right?

(Make sure you save for a rainy day)
Ms. Cornwell is a classic example of what I've been saying for a while - writing is a business.  She wanted to focus on writing, as we all do, and let other people worry about all that cumbersome business stuff.  Well, seems that she let them worry about it so much that they cleaned her out, and now she's suing her financial management company for gross negligence and mismanagement.  When she finally decided to check on her money, she was worth a little under $13 million.  Sounds great...except that she pulls in over $10 million a year and should have about ten times the amount she does in the bank.

Figuring that she needed to focus on writing, Ms. Cornwell neglected her finances, and others took advantage of her lax attitude.  I understand she also claims to have bi-polar disorder, and while I wouldn't wish that one anyone, it's also not a reason to ignore your own financial situation for over a decade and just let others handle it.  The world is a nasty place, and lots of people out there will screw you over if you give them half a chance.  You have to understand some of the ins and outs of your own business or you have no one to blame but you - and the criminals who steal from you - when things go awry.

Don't leave this stuff to others.  Figure out your earnings and keep an eye on where your money from your books goes.  I learned a long time ago that no one will care about your career or your life as much as you do, so if you neglect it, you may just open your front door and yell for someone to come take all of your stuff.

I'm not saying Ms. Cornwell got what she deserved.  This is an awful situation, and I hope she recovers at least some of her money.  However, this could've been avoided if she'd paid more attention to the dull stuff that, like it or not, keeps food on her table.  That's a lesson I hope every writer remembers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

End of Act One

As promised, I finished Act One of my new novel, Schism, this past weekend.  In three weeks, I managed to get nearly 42,000 words on paper.  Unlike the aimlessness of a lot who do NaNoWriMo, this one has direction.  A large portion of time was devoted to outlining, and then I managed to set aside about an hour each day to get the outline into a more coherent form.

I'm really excited about this novel.  This may have been the easiest, least stressful work I've done yet.  Words simply flowed onto the page, and I'm thrilled with the direction.  If Act Two is anything like Act One, I can have this whole thing done, or at least the first draft, by the end of April.

Act One is entitled "The Spark."  Much like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or the shelling of Fort Sumter, I tried to set a stage where the conditions were right for a massive conflict, and all it would take is the right spark to ignite a fire no one could contain.  As I've said before, our country is ripe for something bad to happen.  No, I'm not talking about a financial collapse or a new terrorist attack - although either is possible - but rather something from inside our own society. 

We no longer talk to each other - we screech.  Finding out someone you thought was a friend has a political view diametrically opposite of yours can result in the loss of that friend in today's climate.  Go to any political website, be it Right Wing News or Democratic Underground, you'll find that the articles and forums aren't so much an intellectual discussion of the day's issues as a constant slinging of mud and mockery where any dissent from the prevailing view is greeted by derision and outright rage.  On TV, we go from Rachel Maddow to Sean Hannity, again with each side looking not to engage, but to conquer.  These elements play to the base of its part in the Red/Blue divide and stoke fires intended to anger.  Each has the right to do so, but that doesn't make them mellow.

With this in mind, I've wondered over the last few years what could happen if the right incident occurred.  No longer do we have the massive majorities like Reagan in 1984 or LBJ in 1964 - casting aside 2008(an anomaly due to the timing of the economic collapse), no candidate has gotten more than 51% of the vote since the 1980s.  Popular vote majorities are razor thin, and the parties seem to be much more regionally focused than in the past, with a handful of swing states deciding the election.

When the blood of people is already riled up, how much of a push would it really take to push them over the edge and into political violence?  We like to pretend it couldn't happen here in the US, but that ignores that it has indeed happened before, with 1860 being the most notable example.  In the climate of Schism, neither side is willing to budge, and the politicians of each play to the constituencies of those that pay for them.  Each side eventually feels pushed against a wall and finally lashes out.  Soon, fighting begins without either side really knowing what's happening.

The novel I have so far is very much story based rather than character based.  There are a few that we follow - like Dean Turlman, the man whose family is murdered by an eco-terrorist group, and whose yearning for revenge keeps the fuse lit - but it's almost a documentary following various characters as they react to events.  News stories, internet blogs, and editorials are interspersed throughout to try and capture how the modern media would both follow the story and fan the flames, whether out of strongly held beliefs or desire for ratings.

I tried making it as realistic as I could.  How would a Democratic President react to special interest groups pushing him to respond to what they see as a lawless act of vigilantism?  What would a Republican Governor do so that he could be seen as standing up for law and order while simultaneously bucking a President the citizens of his state don't like?  Would there be any real cooperation between federal and state agencies when each has a different agenda?  And would those who are merely cogs in the machine use their own judgment, or would they allow the passions of others to govern how they proceed?

I've had to work real hard to stay neutral.  I've constantly asked myself if I've made one side more sympathetic than the other.  The point of "The Spark" isn't to engender sympathy, because those who have definitive political passions are going to leap to the side they normally do without prodding anyway.  Rather it's to show how easily things can get out of control when people get so blinded they focus only on the other side as an enemy.  To be frank, I expect a lot of readers to get caught up in this phenomenon while they read, yelling "HELL YEAH!" as the side they identify with the most does something they would like to see.

"The Spark" still needs editing, with probably between 6,000 and 8,000 words coming off when all is said and done, but that'll happen later.  Within the next week, I plan to begin Act Two: Conflagration.  This one will be about the war itself, about neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend, about pockets of blue within red states trying to withstand the onslaught, as well as islands of red within seas of blue doing what they can to survive.  I expect the national guards of several states to get involved as the Midwest and West Coast react to moves by the other, as well as the classic North/South divide to again come to life as each moves to claim Washington DC for their executive.  All in all, it's going to be a bloody mess, with a paralyzed US Military and the uncertainty of foreign attack as the wild card...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

New Distractions

I have a confession to make - I almost didn't post tonight.  It got past my usual posting time, and I'm tired.  I gave serious thought to simply saying, "Eh, no one's going to miss me if I don't post tonight."  But then I remembered my own advice about consistency.  I wasn't out of the country(as happened in the month of April last year), and I actually have tomorrow off.

So, what nearly made me fall off the wagon?  I'd love to say it as because I was grinding on my new novel, and truth be told, I did get very close to the end of Act One tonight.  I got so close, in fact, that I expect Act One to be complete by this time tomorrow(look for a post later this week about it).  However, doing 2000 to 3000 words each day is what I've come to expect on this book.  Instead, I got distracted by my new toy.

I'm a dinosaur.  I've gone kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.  I didn't even have a cell phone until my daughter was born in 2006, and that cell phone lasted until last week.  It was an old flip phone that did what I needed it to do, and besides being a little intimidated by technology, I'm also very cheap, so I really resisted getting something more current.

Unfortunately, when the screens on my old phone went out and I couldn't even tell who I was dialing anymore, I caved, coming to grips with the reality that I needed something more current.  Honestly, it wasn't exactly coming to grips with needing something more current as much as figuring out my old phone was no longer even made.  Therefore, I went down to my local Verizon store and got me a new iPhone.

New is a relative term.  By today's standards, what I got is already outdated.  It's the old iPhone4 model and supposedly already has 18 months on the market(such things don't interest me all that much, so I don't really know the exact amount of time it's been out...and I don't care, either).  However, it's probably not the smartest thing to bring a caveman onto a space station, so this is a good introductory item before I go all in.

All this rambling leads me to why I almost didn't post tonight - I've been screwing around with my new toy.  In the past, it's been a movie or a long-winded post on Facebook that distracted me, but it was undoubtedly my new toy tonight.  Barely even knowing what an app was, I downloaded several(mostly news apps) and commenced to fiddling with it like a fiend.  I went through all the ringtones, checked email, and even made a call.  Before I knew it, it was 9pm, and I hadn't even thought about tonight's post.

I've got to be careful.  It's easy to see how such things can be addicting.  I still have to work, as well as finish up Schism before May if possible(things get kooky for me then), so I can't let such things keep me too occupied.  There's outlining to do for Schism's second act, tentatively called "Conflagration."  Anything that gets in the way will have to be studiously ignored.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to check my Facebook status.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Abandonment

What's the hardest thing to do as an author?  Is it structuring sentences just right in order to evoke that perfect emotional response?  Is it in developing the perfect hook so a reader will dive into your book?  What about figuring out the ending, or whether or not you should split that long winded chapter into three smaller portions instead of two?

To me, it's none of these things.  Instead, it's abandoning work I've put my soul into.
(It's never easy to let go of one of your kids)
I've written a full novel and half of another that I've decided will never see the light of day.  What would make me do such a thing?  Why in the world would I abandon two separate works that I toiled over, for years in both cases?  It's very simple - those works didn't turn out well.

Both books were based on ideas I had as a kid(or at least as a teenager).  I envisioned entire worlds that seemed so fantastic when I was 17, but now seem trite.  One of the novels - On Freedom's Wings - wasn't finished until I was 26 years old, but the idea came into my head when I was playing a video game.  While there might be some salvageable material in there, most of it was reflective of the mind of someone much younger, where ideas and plots all seem like they came from the same Saturday morning cartoon.

But I kind of take it as a point of pride that I could abandon these works.  I realize that I can recognize when my stuff isn't up to snuff, and I have the maturity to throw it in the garbage.  Some people have read them, and they were very kind, but I can now look at the novels objectively and understand that the reaction of people who were like, "Um, well, I didn't have time...uh, I'll read more later" was only a thinly veiled attempt to spare my feelings.  It shows I can grow, both as a person and as a writer.

Still, there are times it hurts like hell.

For a little bit, I played around with maybe just tweaking things, and then, surely, they'd be ready for prime time.  After all, I put so much into writing them, there's a hollow feeling that comes with deciding not to put them out.  However, both would require so much work that I might as well start all over and re-do everything, including the basic premise and all of the characters.  Holding onto them is only a point of wounded pride.

I'm sure all writers that have eventually made it have at least one work in their drawer they feel that way about.  I'm equally as sure that a good number of failed writers do so because they won't give up on something hopeless and move onto something they might have success with.  I don't want this to come across as saying anyone should quit, but you have to understand when you have other outlets to success.

Still, there are quiet nights after my family is asleep where I'll pull out one of those old novels, read parts of it, cringe, and think, "Well, maybe I can give it another go."  In the light of day, I understand just how that sounds and I do move on, but that doesn't mean I abandon my fantasies...just my books that aren't the best.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Filler Material

Ever been in a rut with your writing?  No?  Okay, maybe it's just me...

We've all hit that brick wall where the portion of the story we're working on doesn't quite seem done, but you don't know what to do to advance the story, and the next part of the story isn't ready to be displayed.  I'm ashamed to admit that in times like these, I've simply meandered along and hoped the story acquired the right taste to get me past it, kind of like what goes inside the hotdog or that stuff you put in meatloaf when you're short of ground beef.

I call this filler material, and I usually resort to it when two conditions are met.  First, I've outrun my outline...again.  Second, I'm still a few hundred words short on my word count goal and I'm tired.  I know these are poor excuses for churning out shitty stuff, but it happens to more writers than would care to admit.

To all you folks who revel in being seat-of-the-pants writers, God bless you.  I wish I had the imagination to sit down without having at least an idea where the story is headed and crank out something both coherent and creative.  Unfortunately, I can't operate that way for very long and  produce quality.  That's not to say that I painstakingly map out each scene in such detail that you could turn the outline into a Shakespearean script, just that I have to have a general idea of where the road goes if I want to drive there.

When I try to do the seat-of-the-pants thing, I invariably put in filler material.  I'll plant in a conversation that does nothing to move the plot along, or I'll put in a description of the scene that does little except kill whatever mood I'd hoped to create.  I'll be able to stop myself if I catch it in the middle of doing so, but sometimes I don't discover the flaw until much the next day...or the next week.

That's because sometimes I'm stupid and write when I should know better, like when I'm tired.  I want to eventually make this a profession, so I know I need to write enough to build an inventory.  A lot of writers never make it past the Dreaming of Fame and Riches portion, and so they don't sit down and just write.  I'm determined not to fail simply because I stopped producing material, so I try to establish a daily word count goal, especially when I'm working on a novel.  However, I need to take my own advice sometimes and recognize when it's just not happening, because when I don't, I seem to put in garbage that everyone knows will get cut later.  It becomes pointless, and it's all so I can get to the word count goal and stop for the evening.

Filler material may temporarily satisfy, but it's not good for your work, much like those hotdogs I love.  The reader gets easily bored with such tripe, and if you as a writer annoy them enough, they may get sick of you and never come back.  And although I vow never to use it again, I find that I'll fall into the trap when I don't pay attention.  I don't want to, but it happens.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go eat another hot dog.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Capturing the Mood

Darkness.  Silence.  They're sometimes the best of friends.

She was out there somewhere, laying low, hiding in the shadows.  I peered around each corner, expecting her to jump out at me, but I should've known that wasn't her style.

In this setting, each footfall seemed to be a sound that could awaken the dead.  And when I bumped the kitchen counter by accident, I felt as though the echo would never die.  I cursed my own stupidity even as I redoubled my efforts in the search.  Knowing that her eyes were on me from the night, I began to wonder just who was stalking who.

A shuffling, a clattering, a stifled laugh nearby.

"You'll never find me," she said in a hollow voice.

Spinning my head, I focused on the table.  Had her voice come from under there?  Or had she merely made me think so in order to throw me off the trail?  I'd never know unless I checked, so I crept to the dining room table.

Inch.  By.  Inch.

Although my eyes had adjusted to the lack of light, they'd never be good enough to provide me full night vision.  She could be lurking within a few feet and I wouldn't know it unless I tripped over her.

Sleep had begun to elude me recently as the Muse played her games.  That lack of sleep created blind spots in my vision that made locating her even more difficult.  How long would she play these games?  I could go to bed and hope she'd be easier to find in the morning, but I realized that might sever my link to her completely, and I still needed her to finish my book.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash.  That might've been her.  Of course, it also might've been my exhaustion presenting itself.

When I felt her hand on my shoulder, I nearly jumped out of my skin.  Relieved, I turned to grab her and take her back upstairs, but she'd gone again.

What a pain in the ass, I thought.

Then I heard her.  The sound was microscopic, no bigger than that of a mouse against a wooden floor, but it was enough.  Pretending to circle back around the stairs, I slipped to the floor and crawled to the entertainment center.  There she was, peeking around the corner and trying to find me.  It felt good to get the drop on her for a change, so I reached out and grabbed her by the ankle...

...and this time she was the one to nearly jump out of her skin.

"Dammit," she complained, "you're going to give this old biddy a heart attack."

"If only I could be so lucky," I muttered.  Moving my hands up her thigh to her waist so I could get a firmer grip, I continued, "This has got to stop.  1500 more words - that's it.  Help me set the scene for the battle.  I need it to be heart stopping if I'm going to get the reader to turn the pages without realizing it."

I sensed she still wanted to fight, so she shocked me when the information came out without more of a fuss.  "Shift the points of view," she said.  "Don't let the reader get too comfy with any one character.  If they care about more than one, you'll get them turning just to find out how it ends up for each."

Standing up, I said, "Was that really so hard?"

"No," she said with a wink, "but it sure was fun."

Letting out a sigh that almost made my back give out, I trudged back upstairs to finish for the evening.  I realized in my haste that I hadn't chained her and might have to go through this ritual again tomorrow night, but a small part inside me also thought that was half the fun...

...but only a small part.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Next Novel - Schism

I'm going to tip-toe into the minefield here, which is necessary in order to talk about my new novel.  Although I'm going to try to go into it without coming down on one side or the other, this post has the potential to piss off a few folks.  However, those that take too much heart from this are the entrenched partisans who are part of what Schism is about.

Our politics are broken.  Notice I didn't say our system, but the cogs within it have gone out of whack.  Each side is convinced of the righteousness of its position and is unwilling to give an inch.  Democrats rightfully point out that the President won a fairly resounding victory in the electoral college, as well as their pickup of two net seats in the Senate.  The Republicans, on the other hand, also rightfully point out that since every single seat in the House of Representatives was up for election, the country sent a Republican majority back to the House.

In this process, the folks who are willing to reach across the aisle have seen their numbers dwindle.  Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan, fierce political opponents, famously had drinks every Friday.  Six Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee joined with Democrats to vote for the proposed articles of impeachment on Richard Nixon.  Even Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich worked together well enough to put the country on a path towards a balanced budget.

Today, however, this spirit of cooperation does not exist.  Each side - from the Tea Party to the folks who support Move On - have seen no value in compromise and/or working together.  They stake out the extremes of their parties and refuse to give an inch.  We can't change the tax rate, talk about spending, or reform the regulatory environment without the other side screaming that its opponent wants to shove grandma over a cliff or swear in Satan as the defacto Command-in-Chief.  It's in this environment that things look ready to boil over, and it's in this environment that Schism looks possible to me.
(Is America ready to blow its top?)
If the conditions are right, all it takes is the right spark to ignite a conflagration.  World War I proved this - the nations of Europe were primed to fight, and it took the assassination of an obscure Arch Duke to plunge the entire world into war...a war, I might add, that would reshape the world for the next century.  In Schism, that spark is ignited by an eco-terrorist group.  A well off family has decided to build a ski lodge in Idaho, but members of the ANFPP(Action Network For the Protection of the Planet) feel such construction would infringe on a wilderness already under too much strain from development, so they burn the lodge down.  The ANFPP prides itself on destroying only property and not hurting people, but they miscalculate in this instance and accidentally kill the family building the lodge, as that family was staying at the site to oversee the final stages of construction.

However, one member of the family wasn't present.  The family's oldest son is in the Army and was in Afghanistan at the time.  Devastated, the young Ranger begins to plot revenge.  He secures a loan to rebuild the lodge and sets a trap for those responsible for killing his family.  As the group comes in to destroy it yet again, he ambushes and kills them, filming it for broadcast on the Internet as a warning to other eco-terrorist groups.  Knowing he'll be pursued by law enforcement, he runs to the grounds of an extremist militia that vows to protect him.

Political pressure begins to build.  The man is seen sympathetically by a lot of people, while others in the environmental movement, although saying they decry the violence that began this ordeal, scream for his arrest as a vigilante.  The President - a Democrat - surrounds the site with the FBI and ATF but knows they don't have the weaponry to take out such a well armed group, so he orders the federalization of the Idaho National Guard.  The Republican Governor of the state, dealing with his own political pressure, refuses to allow the transfer of authority(citing the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 that doesn't allow for the use of the military in a law enforcement role on American soil), so the President federalizes the National Guard of nearby Washington and orders them to go in and detain the Soldier.  When the Idaho National Guard refuses to allow the Washington National Guard to cross into the state, a pitched battle erupts, and the sides separate from there.  Lines are drawn around the red/blue divide, urban and rural, and even within the boundaries of several states(Missouri, for example, reliably votes Republican, but St. Louis and Kansas City are reliably Democratic).  Several nations try to take advantage of our trouble by moving into previously forbidden territory while our nation burns.

One of the hardest things to do here is to come down evenhandedly so that I don't look like I'm promoting one side or the other.  There are also lots of questions I have to resolve as I move forward - How does a Republican Congress react to a Democratic President's use of troops on American soil, and do they use what they believe to be a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act as grounds for impeachment?  How do Democratic representatives and states react to the second attempt in less than 20 years to impeach a Democratic President.  What does Canada do?  Parts of it along the coasts of Vancouver and Quebec are solid blue, but parts in the interior are solid red, so do they stay out, or do they invite those they agree with to join them?  Here's my biggest question - how does the US Military react, especially in the paralysis of civilian leadership during a foreign attack?

I've decided to divide this novel into four acts, with each act containing enough sub-plot to stand on its own.  I think I know where part of it is going, and I'm struggling with how to resolve it in a way that's both satisfying to the audience and realistic, and how to do this without pissing off 40% of the country(from the way I look at it, 40% of the country supports one side or the other, with the 20% in the middle usually being the ones to sway elections).  Whatever happens, I think it's going to be a wild ride.

Try not to argue too much in the comments.  Unlike before, I might not respond to all comments, since doing so could be seen as coming down on one side or the other, although any really nasty comments will get deleted(hopefully it doesn't come to that).  Now, have I launched a great new novel - slated to be my third release - or have I gone into politically untenable territory?  I guess we'll find out soon enough...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

More Than Writing

This post may piss off a few folks.  There are going to be a lot of people this will not apply to, and I can only hope they understand that, but I've had a number of experiences where general criticism leads to offense even when it doesn't include the offended person.  Oh well, you'll either know this is for you or you won't - I can't control that.

In the past month, there have been countless writers who've said to me, "Get in the game!  Let that business stuff take care of itself."  Or they've said, "You can't worry about the business side of this right now - you need to write and publish!"  These pieces of advice hold merit if this is just a hobby, but if a writer wants to be a professional, he or she needs to understand the business aspects of this, especially if that person wants to go indie.

There are a lot of great ideas out there, most of which have proven stillborn in the hands of those who don't want to move from idea to market.  Similarly, there are a lot of writers who've written some great stuff that'll unfortunately never go beyond their very loyal and very small fan base because they won't put the effort into truly being a professional.
(Don't let the ship sail without you)
Writing is the fun and easy part of what we do, and if you only want a few folks to read your stuff, that's as far as you need go.  However, those of you who want to do this for a living and actually be able to eat at the end of the day, you need to do more.  This entails learning things beyond how to craft a sentence or develop a character.  You need to understand accounting for sales, itemizing business deductions, developing a marketing strategy, preparing a production schedule, and a whole host of other things that will probably put you to sleep.

I love to write, but in an odd twist, I also have a pretty good business mind(or at least the Masters Degree in Business Management I have on my wall says so...yeah, I just bragged...get over it).  It's that inclination that allows me to understand that publishing isn't something you just jump into willy nilly.  Yes, you could hit the lottery and find success without putting in much on the business side, but you could also get discovered by an NBA scout while playing at the local YMCA - possible, but the few that do are the rare exception.

Unfortunately, most writers' eyes glaze over when you start talking about accounting spreadsheets and setting up S-Corporations.  "I went into this to write!" they'll exclaim.  "As long as I pay my taxes and post on a few Kindle boards, I'll do okay."  It's an understandable attitude - after all, writing is fun and exciting, while managing an inventory(if you so desire rather than simply going to POD...even if you do, I still recommend you maintain a small inventory for spur of the moment sales and free giveaways, but that's probably another post) is about as thrilling as dipping carrots in vinegar and eating them

In today's world, especially when going indie, a writer is responsible for all of the work in making a name for himself or herself.  To move beyond niche, you need to plan out a marketing strategy to get to your target demographic.  Do you see your books being read by single women who haven't married or are divorced?  Do you think college age males are the ones you want to reach?  Each demographic requires a vastly different approach, and it means doing more than just uploading your novel to Amazon and hoping it gets discovered.  This initial step is where a lot of folks get discouraged because they feel no one ever gave them a chance.  Most fix me with baleful eyes when I ask what they did beyond that.

Once you have an initial marketing plan in place - and one far more intensive than the very basic beginnings mentioned above - you need to manage your distribution chain and track expenses.  Do you know what can be written off and what causes that deduction to become disallowed?  Have you plotted an appropriate profit margin that covers your production expenses and still lets you make a few bucks off each book?  Once you've started selling, have you set aside some of those profits to cover the cost of publishing your next book?

My browbeating sounds harsh, I know, and those that have put in their due diligence should ignore it, but I've run into too many who never think beyond "The End."  My heartburn stems from the fact that most of these folks have a lot of talent but will never make it because they're "arteests" who can't be bothered with that boring other stuff.  And I would caution even those who go traditional to understand a large portion of it, if for no other reason than to avoid being ripped off by their publishers(although most publishers will expect you to take on more of the business side than you'd like to know).

Some people will tell me that they do this stuff, and as I said above, if you do, then ignore this because it doesn't apply to you.  But those of you who write, write, write and never think beyond story creation, take these words to heart.  Study business practices and become modestly familiar with them.  Doing so could be the difference between making a few extra bucks with your work and being able to quit that job at Safeway so you can make your living from this whole writing thing.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Character Surprises

This is one of those posts that will sound somewhat hoity-toity to those who don't write very much.  They'll scoff and say, "You elitist snob, that's a load of self-congratulating bullshit."  However, most who visit this site are writers themselves, and they'll recognize this in an instant.
(What a pair of characters!)
The characters we write will take on a life of their own.  I never would've believed it had it not happened to me while writing, and amazingly enough, it took less than one novel for me to discover this truth that most writers have found.

In my very first completed work - On Freedom's Wings - I created a character named Shshashnara.  He was the Emperor of an alien species named the Fitharfia, and they were one of the chief adversaries faced by an Earth struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of a galactic war.  I'd intended for Shshashnara to be somewhat shallow and flat, a minor character in the overall plot.  However, as the story developed, he turned out to be much more cunning and creative than I originally thought.  He was always supposed to be diabolical, but the subtlety with which he pursued his goals and the intelligence he displayed startled me.  I began to take more of an interest in the character, and the creature that was supposed to be a minor plot device turned into a major player before I could stop him.

Every novel since has had something similar happen.  No, not all of the characters have developed in unexpected ways - in fact, most of them have generally turned out like I envisioned them when I began.  However, there has always been at least one character that went off in an unexpected direction and turned out to be deeper than I thought they would be.  In Akeldama, the character of Ethan, a replacement for a murdered character never intended to play a major part, turned out to have more honor and be more resourceful than most of the rest of the cast and was a major plot device near the end.  In Salvation Day, Mike Faulkner's lab assistant Gary went from sounding board that helped build compassion for the main character to a man of conscience whose love of family was something Mike ended up jealous of.  I never meant to explore the relationship between Christian Gettis and his dad in Wrongful Death, but his dad's sense of loss and Christian's witnessing of it helped the main character mature and understand how his life affected others.  Finally, in Canidae, the chief antagonist was meant to be a being of pure evil who was motivated only by vengeance, but he turned out to have several redeeming qualities regarding loyalty and duty, so I shifted the focus of evil from him and onto the back of the beast that I should have recognized as the main bad guy from the start.

This is the fun and spontaneous part of writing.  Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, once said that he could never imagine a line in his strip without one of the characters saying it.  Suzy Derkins wouldn't say something that Hobbes would say, and a line intended for Calvin's mom never sounded authentic coming from his dad.  This sounded elitist to me until I started writing and found he was right.  My characters act in ways unique to them, and much like real people, they develop along totally spontaneous paths.  That is both the most amazing and most scary part of our imagination - that people we've met nowhere else but in our minds can act and think so independently.

However, without this level of independence, our stories would sound flat and unimaginative.  Look at any competent writer's work during a series, and you'll usually find several characters thought of as minor in the beginning to be much more fleshed out down the road(see Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series).  They grow as the story grows and end up having lives of their own, and it's one of the parts of writing that I look forward to the most.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Short Stories

Many people have a passion for going to the gym.  However, talk to several different gym rats, and you'll likely find several different ways of working out.  Some people will go in and do heavy weights, focusing on arms and chest, for 60 minutes.  Others will decide that cardio is the way to go and will spend 45 minutes on an elliptical machine.  Still more will do every machine they can on low weight to get an all over burn.

Like working out, writing has many different ways to flow.  Like that heavy weight gym rat, I prefer to write novels.  I like the depth I can achieve in a full format, and that it takes a long time isn't any impediment to me.  However, much like switching up your workout is good for your body, switching up your writing is similarly good for your mind.  I could try doing a novella(story under 40,000 words) or writing poetry to stretch myself, but I feel the best way to break out of my comfort zone is the short story.
(Being healthy requires a balanced meal)
Short stories are difficult for me because they're constrained.  Unlike a full length novel, you have to draw in a reader with a limited amount of words, and then find a satisfying way to end the story that doesn't leave the reader feeling frustrated.  Whereas it might take me the first 20,000 words to create the right mood, most short stories are less than 3,000, and some of the contests I've entered limit that by another half.

You can't meander in this format.  It's like stripping a car down to its bare essence - no leather seats, no air conditioning, even no doors - and seeing if it still works.  While I've liked lots of different short stories, I'd never really considered creating them until this writing thing became more than just a hobby.

In June of 2011, after returning from a business trip, I entered a Writers' Journal writing contest on a whim.  The magazine gave me the opening line, and I had to create a 1,500 word or less story around it.  I did the whole thing in 45 minutes and submitted it, promptly forgetting I did so.  Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out I placed!  You can read that entry here.

Honestly, had nothing happened, I probably wouldn't have done much afterwards, but placing drew my interest.  I decided to write a few more and see what happened, and to my amazement, I again did pretty well.

I approach writing a short story pretty much the same as a novel from the standpoint of mechanics.  I outline a general idea and then put it on paper.  However, unlike my first few attempts, I now accept that I will go over the word limit on the first draft.  That allows it a little more free flow and gives me a margin of error.  I then go back in twice more and remove unnecessary words and re-write those parts that are awkward.  Finally, I conduct one more read-through and it becomes complete.

I'm entering a couple more short story contests this January and even intend for the stories I write, whether they fare well in contests or not, will come out in a collection that will be my tenth released work in a few years.  I expect there to be between 25-30 stories in there, and I'll be interested to see what kind of response it gets(assuming I've built any kind of fan base at all).  There were several short stories I thought would do well in contests that have vanished into the ether, while others that I thought were throwaways have drawn more notice than I ever dreamed.  Goes to show that my tastes and those of others don't always match.

Short story writing will continue to be a different way for me to stretch my legs and try something new.  It lets me drill into the basics of a story and makes me a more focused writer.  Although I don't enjoy it as much as writing a full novel, I still get a thrill over finding out if I can do in a narrow format that which usually takes me four months to accomplish.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Year Ahead

Ah, 2013 - a new year and a fresh start.  In reality, it's simply another day among a slew of them, but the psychological effect of a new year can be profound.  I have lots to do this year, and I thought I'd list my resolutions for the next 12 months.
(A new day dawns!)
1.  Complete Schism by the end of May.
Okay, this first one is rather ambitious.  Schism will be the next novel I'll write, and it's going to be intense.  It's about a second civil war in the United States, this one along red/blue lines.  Much like the continent of Europe in 1914, I think our country is primed for something dreadful - all it'll take will be the right spark.  Our politicians do everything to hold onto power rather than govern, aided by increasingly fringe interest groups.  Our people yell at each other rather than converse, and a stray political comment can cost you friends you've had for most of your life.  Each side has become more and more entrenched and unwilling to give ground, and each side believes the other doesn't have the stomach to stick it out.  I hope to write a political action/thriller that will demonstrate a realistic way in which our nation could plunge itself into the dark days we experienced 150 years ago.

I have a great deal of personal stuff going on early this summer, and I'm not sure how much time I'll have to write.  Therefore, I plan to spend most of my free time writing now.  I have the first 40 or so pages outlined, and although I have no idea how it's going to end, I'm excited to find out.  In fact, I haven't been this excited about writing a novel since I began Salvation Day.

Speaking of Salvation Day...

2.  Write the next novel in the Salvation Day Series by the end of the year.
The world of Mike Faulkner is one I know well, and I was extremely satisfied with how the first book turned out.  Unfortunately, this goal may be even more ambitious than my first since I have no idea which direction the next novel will take.

I've intentionally not thought much about it since too many ideas in my head at once tend to distract me.  However, I know how the book begins, and I'm hoping to use that as a jumping off point to finish it before next December 31st.

At the same time, I won't lie and say I feel no pressure when contemplating that story.  Not to be immodest, but Salvation Day is far and away my best novel, and the emotional punch it packs is intense.  I will have fun figuring out the next part, but I feel a little bit of trepidation in trying to recapture that magic.  The hardest part will be in not psyching myself out.  I'm certain that the basis exists to create a great tale, so I need to focus on how to develop it and stop worrying it won't measure up.

3.  Enter at least five short story contests.
My next post will be on writing short stories, and those are obviously a different animal than full length novels.  However, I've had a little bit of success in getting attention with shorter pieces, and it's an exercise I enjoy.  Besides helping me get better by forcing me to focus, I plan for the 10th book I release to be a collection of short stories(somewhere between 25-30), so I need something to go off of.  The ones I've currently written - around ten - will be in there, but I'll need more to justify selling it to people.

And they don't take very long to write, either.  I can usually do an outline and write a decent one in a day or two, although longer ones have taken as many as four days.  Doing something different allows me to take a break from grinding out a novel...a proverbial leg stretch, so to speak.  If I can do five, possibly winning or placing in two or three, I'll consider that success.

4.  Score more author interviews.
I love interviewing other writers.  Getting perspective from those who've had some success with what they've written always teaches me something about both the business and the craft of writing.  There are several I intend to contact this year, and hopefully not all of them will blow me off.

5.  Fix up my site.
My last post talked about website design, and this year I need to get off my ass and make it happen.  I want to add that bio page, as well as pages devoted specifically to each novel I've written.  This is going to require me to learn some of the technical aspects of this thing called a blog, and my lack of knowledge about how to do so can no longer be an excuse.  I don't know exactly when this year it'll happen, but I promise to make changes that will enhance the site for those who stop by.

6.  Edit two novels.
In the past year, I've finished the first draft of two novels.  However, neither of them is anywhere close to being ready for release.  To start with, Wrongful Death needs a new title, and although several have gone through my head(Accidental Haunting, Accidental Death, Misplaced Anger, etc.), none of them has really caught my fancy.  Then, I need to go through and correct for spelling and grammatical mistakes before finally altering any content that requires it.  I've found this to be an exhausting process that requires focus, meaning I can't be writing anything else during that period.  I expect, based on length, that it'll take me at least a month to do it right for this one.

Canidae is a little different.  I'm still not convinced that's the right title, and I know several parts will require not just spell checking, but revision.  There are awkward parts where I don't feel I captured exactly what I was looking for, so I need to dive back in and bring it around.  However, it's length, twice that of Wrongful Death, will at least double the editing time, and likely require even more.  I love Akeldama and want to get the breathlessness of that story into the new one, so I'll need to re-do parts of it to get there.

This is what I intend for the New Year.  What are your resolutions?