Thursday, October 31, 2013

Varying Styles

I've completed six novels so far and about a dozen short stories.  The toughest thing about each of them hasn't been the idea, but rather the style in which I tell them.

The biggest thing that a writer must do with his or her story is bring it across in the format that best draws the reader into the story.  The first couple of books I wrote were in a more traditional style - third person limited.  That seems to be the most prevalent way of novel writing out there, and it was the easiest.  The stories themselves also lent to this style, so it wasn't difficult to do.

Where I hit a snag was in my third novel, Wrongful Death.  I wanted to write a ghost story from the perspective of the ghost, but a traditional format didn't seem like it would be effective in creating the proper emotion.  The only way I could think to get the reader to understand the ghost's motivations would be to get inside the ghost's head, and the only way to do that would be to tell it from a first person point of view.  That way I could build emotional tension while allowing the confusion a new spirit might feel to remain intact.

My fifth novel, Schism, is more about story than character.  I wanted readers to feel the tension of a second civil war without getting too attached to any one character.  But how to do it?  What I decided on was a format that intermixed news stories and blog posts to create tension and the feel of a polarized nation.  Anyone who follows politics at all is well familiar with these things and would be able to rapidly relate to the detached passion they bring.  World War Z did something like this by focusing on story rather than character, and it made for a first rate book(although not a great movie).

I looked to do something different with Homecoming.  Yes, I probably could've done that in the more traditional format, but I wanted to see if I could stretch to something less often used.  I remembered a zombie novel I read called Rise, which was written in a journal format.  I loved the way that Gareth Wood found a creative way to draw out emotional exhaustion, and I felt it might be the route I needed to take to accomplish the same thing.  The outcome of the battles in Homecoming are never in doubt since, in the novel, mankind is stronger than the enemy it faces, but I needed a way to give it a feel of humanity, and the journal allowed that.  I could bring out the emotional development of the story through a single character's feelings about what was happening around him since his journal would be the one thing where he'd have to be completely honest with himself.  It was something I'd never tried before, and it was a challenge, but I'm very pleased with the result.

Look into yourself and what you want to write.  When you do, give just as much scrutiny to how you tell the story as you do to what the story is.  Different styles create different emotions and help us see things through different eyes.  Stephanie Meyer was going to do this with Midnight Sun, the Twilight story told not through the eyes of Bella, but through those of Edward.  Unfortunately, some of the story leaked out, so she suspended work on it, but I think it could've helped Twilight fans understand the story from an entirely new perspective.  When someone else sees it, the reality is different, and it draws the reader into new worlds.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Writing What You Know

"It's bullshit," the Muse cooed into my ear.  "That's a canard I've heard since Aesop first put ink on parchment, and I laugh every time."

Spinning around, I looked at my Muse with a furrowed brow.  "Surely the advice can't be all that worthless or so many people wouldn't be giving it."

"Lots of people used to believe leeches should be used to bleed an illness out of someone - that didn't make them right."

She was confusing me, but that was nothing new.  I rarely got a straight answer from her, and never at midnight.  Surely there was something to this "write what you know thing," so I continued to press my case.

"What about Steinbeck?  London?  Melville?  They all took their passion in life and turned it into novel form.  Their works are considered classics, and they did it by writing what they knew.  Yeah, they had to embellish some aspects to create a coherent story, but it was their life.  That's what made it so compelling."

"I didn't say it was never a good idea," she scolded.  "What I said was that it's not necessary to create a good story."

"Okay, I'm lost.  Perhaps you could fill me in."

Now she looked at me like I was a stupid child who wasn't grasping the concept of division.  "Look at the stuff you like to read.  I don't think JK Rowling really lived in a castle with her wizard friends and tried to create Horcruxes.  Arthur C. Clarke never rendezvoused with a starship that entered our solar system.  I'm pretty sure that Stephen King's only experience with a flu was the kind that gives you a weeklong fever rather than the kind that wipes out most of humanity."

"What are you getting at?"

"The key isn't to write what you know, but to write what you're passionate about.  That's the key to why all those slice of life stories from folks like Hemingway and Dickens did so well - they were passionate about writing those tales.  That they had real life experience helped give them perspective, but it would have been meaningless if they didn't tell those stories with passion."

"You're saying that I can write about something I know nothing about, so long as I'm passionate about it?" I asked.

"You need to be somewhat versed in it so you can bring some realism to the work, but that's the basic gist."  She paused long enough to cross her legs the other way.  "Novelists who bring emotion to their work draw others to them.  Think about Richard Matheson or Harry Turtledove - they never saw the afterlife or fought in the Civil War, but they researched them so what they needed could make their original idea plausible."

"So it's the idea that's paramount?"

"Exactly!" she exclaimed.  "You have to find an idea you love.  Once that's there, bringing the research in is but icing on the cake.  And if the idea brings you enough fire, your research and backstory will have enough emotion to come through in your work."

"Well, I've got lots of ideas I'm passionate about."

"Then that's where you focus.  A story about trekking through the desert with a dimwitted sidekick is worthless if you don't care why they're doing it.  However, if you believe in it, the rest will fall in line."

"Great - can you help me expand it?"

"Absolutely," she said with a wink.  "That's why I'm here.  I provide the push, you provide the fuel.  Together, we'll write what you know because your idea is truly the crux of that saying - you know your idea best and most intimately."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Always A Salesman

Too many times, we forget that writing is a business.  Writers may love to write and see people's faces light up when they hear our work, but in the end, someone has to buy our work.  With that in mind, we need to be on the lookout for those who might be willing to give us business.

That means being able to talk about our work in even the most unusual of circumstances.  Tonight, I was at my the birthday party of a friend of my daughter, and I got to talking to one of the other parents.  We had many things in common, and it came out that I liked to write.

"Really," she said.  "How have your books done?"

"Oh, I haven't published them yet," I replied.  "I plan for the first, Akeldama, to come out in May of 2016."

"It sounds like a fascinating story.  Let me know your pen name and I'll keep my eye out for it."

"Actually, if you'd like to join my email list, anyone on that list gets about 25% off when it comes out."

She responded enthusiastically, and I walked away with another email address to add.  I wasn't pushy about it, but I saw an opportunity to describe my work to a potential buyer, and I took it.  I spoke with passion about the story, as well as another couple I'd written, and she was soon asking me questions before I got to them.  Sure, it could have all been fake for my benefit, but she sounded sincere enough.
(Let your passion light the way)
I believe the key is the passion we bring to our sales talk without being overbearing.  Just like our stories have to sweep the reader away, selling our stories must encompass similar passion.  The potential buyer, just like the reader, needs to feel this story and know they have to read the whole thing.  In addition to being prepared to talk about it when the opportunity arises, we also have to be able to sell as well as we write.  I view it as an extension of our ability to tell a story, for we are providing the buyer with enough information to wet their appetite without giving away the farm.  It's another form of storytelling itself, and it can lend itself to the rest of our craft.

Opportunities come so infrequently that we have to jump on them when they come.  Remember, if no one knows about your writing, how can they read it?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writing Across Genre

(Who wants to eat only one kind of food?)
There are about as many writers out there as there are grains of sand, and each one has his or her own recipe for brilliance.  Some say to outline, some say to have a writing niche, some say to write what you know.  The roads to success are as varied as the people who write them, but there seems to be one thing a large number of them agree on - that you should stick to one genre when you write.

To many, a romance novelist should always be a romance novelist.  After all, that's that person's specialty, so why would they try to branch out?  Each genre has its own rules, accepted writing styles, and audience, and it can be hard to move between styles and demographics.  Furthermore, your audience is used to you as a horror/sci fi/thriller author, and you risk alienating them by writing something they dislike.

To that I say - horse hockey!

A story is a story, and just because a writer is good at one area, that doesn't mean he or she doesn't have ideas in others.  I like to read and write both sci fi and paranormal.  Just because I like a good monster book, that doesn't mean I have no interest in politics.  Just like I like to read across these genres, I also enjoy writing across them.

Now I know that approaching each genre means altering styles, but I expect this as a reader, so why would I be incapable of it as a writer?  RA Salvatore is known mainly for fantasy, but he also wrote he kick-ass novel in the Star Wars universe that lots of folks have taken to.  In doing so, he gained new readers, and he drew his older fans to new works.  By going across genres, he opened up his world to things most writers never dare to dream about.

I think this whole "you should pick a genre and stick to it" thing is bullshit.  If you have a good story in mind, write it down.  Don't worry about the gatekeepers of the traditional world - they usually have a greater grasp on bureaucratic rules than they do on what's right.  Yes, you have to keep in mind the varying styles that you might need to alter, but that doesn't mean you should pass on a great idea just because it's outside of where you've been pigeonholed.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

To Each Thing, A Season

NaNoWriMo is coming up.  Anyone who has consistently read this blog knows of my antipathy for it.  For those who don't, go ahead and read the post I did on it, but be prepared to be offended.  Most writers dislike how I think NaNoWri Mo is for the less committed.  That's because I think that a writer should always be writing, and not limiting oneself to doing lots of work in only a single month of the year.

That said, that doesn't mean I don't have cycles of my own.  I've been pretty consistent the last few years at finishing the first draft of two novels per year, and I have a definite writing season that I follow.  It began unconsciously but has grown more pronounced over time.  I start a new novel every January, with the goal of being complete by the end of June.  My next writing season then begins on August 1st, and it is always slated to be done by the end of December.

I have no idea why the calendar in my head is set up this way, only that it is.  Yes, I have been known to vary a little, most notably with the beginning of my summer schedule, but the variance is always small, and it's never done on the front end of the year.  Novels don't carry over from year to year, and I work my ass off to make sure I get done on schedule.

It seems to be a structure thing with me.  In my own mind, structure provides security, and security provides peace of mind.  It lets me believe there's some sense of order in an otherwise chaotic world.  To me, starting a novel in March and letting it run through the middle of October would be as bizarre as the NFL kicking off its first games in April.

Speaking of the middle of October, that's where we are now, and although I've been done with Homecoming for several weeks now, I just can't see myself starting another large project until January.  That doesn't mean I'll be doing nothing with my writing, though.  I think that's where this schedule benefits me the most.

Anyone who is serious about this business knows that the first draft is but one step in a long process.  This is where my having seasons benefits me.  It gives me structure to do the editing of some things, as well as working beyond novels.  Since the end of Homecoming, I've done the final edit on my third novel, Wrongful Death.  In the coming weeks, I plan to do the first edit on Schism.  Completing a writing season means I can focus on these tasks without the distraction of having an unfinished novel out there.  And vice versa, when I'm writing a novel, I don't get weighed down with the guilt of needing to edit something still out there.  I can also write a few short stories so that I break out of the routine of writing larger stories, thus allowing me stretch my mind.

I have no idea if the rest of you have a "writing season" of some kind, but it works.  Anyone out there as insane as I am about this?

Sunday, October 20, 2013


For the majority of our stories, characters are the essential vehicle we use to tell our tale.  Along the way, we get to know these quirky bits of our imagination.  As absurd as it sounds, we form relationships with them, and they kind of become our friends.  That kinds crazy to folks who don't write, but it makes perfect sense to us.

Unfortunately, this can lead to an unhealthy level of attachment.  Much like a general in combat, we get so attached to our characters that we become afraid to make them do what's necessary.  We don't want them to get hurt, and we get so invested in their happiness that we despair of seeing them suffer.  In a novel, however, their suffering, and sometimes worse, is the basis for our story moving forward.  If those we care about don't suffer, how do we create tension or a dramatic story?
(Who's in your cast of characters?)
Stephen King famously went through this when he wrote The Stand.  He found he was in the middle of a story with no way out, and he was so attached to Glen, Nick, Larry, and the gang that he couldn't find a way out until the unthinkable occurred to him - he had to kill the ones he loved.  In The Stand, this meant detonating a large bomb in the Boulder safe house that killed Nick Andros and sent several others to their proverbial graves.  Finally, he had found a way out of the gridlock.

This is something I've observed lots of writers having a problem with.  Injuring or killing your friends(in the novel you're writing) can be a daunting task.  After all, we developed these folks and want to see them succeed.  However, we have to remember that they're just plot decides designed to get a reader from A to B, nothing more.  As cold as it sounds, we're like that general sending troops to battle - some have to be sacrificed so that the greater good can be served.

Does the thought of hurting your characters make you queasy?  Do you lose sleep?  Some will undoubtedly laugh at these questions, but more still will understand them, many even nodding at them.  As writers, we have to find ways to break free from those attachments and crush those we've created.  Knocking off a favorite character or torturing him or her in some way is usually a great device to bring realism and tension to what we've written.  By being afraid to do the unthinkable we relegate ourselves to the normal, or even the boring.  After all, have you ever gotten into a book that went like this:  "John was born.  He lived a happy life, met his wife, and had a great family.  He was always happy and no one bothered him.  He easily overcame all challenges.  Everybody wanted his life."
(Yup - a boring read)
Yeah, I'd put it down to.  Our characters have to be in trouble, and sometimes they even have to die.  Figuring out the how and why is what will keep people reading.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Maintaining A Schedule

It's nights like tonight that remind me of the need for discipline if I ever hope to make it as a writer.  Why might you ask?  Because writing is a business, and to succeed at business, you need to take a disciplined approach.

I ordinarily do my three posts for the week on Sunday night and schedule them for different times during the week.  Sure, something big might come up, like the death of Richard Matheson, but I can rearrange if I want to do a spontaneous post.  However, I like to have the entire slate complete in one sit down so I don't have to worry about it for the rest of the week.  Don't get me wrong - I love to write this blog, but I have lots of other things going on during the week from a writing perspective, so being able to focus on those is nice.  Unfortunately, I didn't do that this week.

I'm not real sure what happened.  Maybe I was too busy watching football and just got behind, but I noticed I didn't do a post, so I sort of improvised.  I'd always planned to post the first chapter of Wrongful Death, and that night seemed as good a time as any.  By Monday, I got a burr to discuss bad guys since I just watched Sleepy Hollow and continued to find the story lacking.  I meant to delve right into the next post, but I got into other things, and that plan was quickly moot.  I was sure I'd find the time, but I found myself this afternoon suddenly remembering that I had no post...and there were no plans to do so at that moment.

I write this at 10pm in a state of exhaustion from a busy week, and all I can think is how dumb I can be to not just do something right the first time.  Sure, I could've let it go, but I'd be violating my own rules.  Then, just like skipping the gym makes it easier to keep skipping, I'd have continued to find excuses to not blog.  So here I am creating this whiny post and wondering what I can do to rectify it.  The biggest thing is to do my work on Sunday as I always plan to do so that this doesn't bite me in the ass next week.

I promise I'll get back into writing again next week with something fun.  For now, bedtime is beckoning me, and it'd be rude to ignore the call.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Credible Bad Guys

I'm a huge Supernatural fan.  I've been hooked ever since I saw the opening episode(although, admittedly, I saw it in rerun).  There's a special magic about the show, and I've looked around at others to see if the magic can be captured in another place.  However, from Grimm to Sleepy Hollow, nothing has come close.

It could be the cast of characters isn't as great, or that the wrong actors are playing them.  Perhaps it's the locations or the backstory.  I'm sure that these elements come into play in this regard, but when I gave it a lot of thought - yes, I know...lots of thought about a TV show...that's just how I roll sometimes...other people can solve world hunger - I decided that a big piece of it was that the bad guys simply aren't credible.

Heading down this road, it came to me that the villains need some modicum of success.  No, that doesn't mean they should win in the end, but they have to have enough success during the story where the viewer starts to have legitimate fear that maybe, just maybe, the villain will pull this off.  In Supernatural, the demons occasionally win(for at least an episode), and the monsters have been known to escape.

In our work, we have to create a similar effect.  You can't build tension if the villain is easily overcome.  In the Harry Potter novels, Voldemort was a worthy foe because one got the sense that he just might prevail.  Admit it - when he used the Avada Kedavra curse against Harry, some of you thought that he really killed the hero.  In the Thrawn Trilogy, Tim Zahn lets the reader think that Thrawn is near invincible, and Thrawn enjoys the occasional victory.  These things give the bad guy the credibility he needs to build tension and put the reader on the edge of his or her seat.

Sometimes our tendency is to make our heroes so awesome that they can sweep aside the villain without a second thought.  That's an okay tactic to use if the good guy/bad guy dynamic isn't central to the point of the book(perhaps you're using it as a vehicle about the hero's personal journey or you've decided to use that to set up a broader storyline), but if, as with most novels, the tension between the two is the central tenet of the story, then you can't just make the hero winning appear easy.

Many of us, at heart, are romantics, and we always see the triumph of good over evil, so it pains us to write anything resembling a victory of evil.  However, if we want true tension in the tale, then we have to overcome our natural predilections and put the bad guy on top for a while.  They need to be real and be capable of winning.  If they're not, then the reader will get bored.  Sure, we'll feel great about the good guy winning, but that victory will be hollow, for there was no effort expended to get there.  And where's the fun in that?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wrongful Death, Chapter 1

I've been talking so much recently about finishing the edit on Wrongful Death, which finally wrapped up this past Friday, that I decided to post the first chapter for all to see, while recognizing the ridicule it opens me up to.  Unfortunately, the pragmatic side of me won't let me post the whole novel, so you'll have to get it when it's released to get the whole story.



            The last thing that went through my head was a chunk of concrete.  Of course, the windshield had done the same only a second earlier.  In the instant before the lights went out, I could almost hear mom nagging me about wearing my seatbelt.
            Standing, I tried to dust myself off.  I felt surprisingly fine and hadn't yet made the connection between my situation and the mangled piece of meat in the road.
            Tires squealed and rapidly faded into the distance.  I turned and stared into the setting sun just long enough to see the outline of something black disappear over the hill.  However, I quickly refocused my attention when another car screeched nearby.

            "Jen, call 911."
            I spun around to find a heavyset man in a gray sweater kneeling over something on the sidewalk.  He placed his hand on whatever it was and gently shook it before racing to his car and opening the trunk.
            In spite of the scene, I was more interested in what had happened to my car.  Yes, the Chevy Malibu was ugly and had gotten me a lot of grief over the past couple of years, but it was mine.  I'd finished paying Walt back for the loan he gave me, and now I had a POS I could call my own.
            My heart sank when the damage became apparent.  The front end was crumpled against the light pole, white smoke pouring from the engine.  The windshield had a hole in it, and the front left tire was turned in at an angle that I'm sure only Mr. Wells, my 9th grade geometry teacher, could have measured.
            "Whitaker Street, about half a mile south of the Cross Roads Shopping Center," jabbered a thin blond on a cell phone.  Another couple of cars had come up behind her and people were stepping out.
            "Why the hell are you blocking the road?" yelled a frumpled looking bald man.
            Before his wife could answer, the first car's owner said, "There's been an accident you jackass.  Someone's hurt and we're trying to get an ambulance."  The man slammed his trunk and raced back over to the sidewalk with a blanket in his arms.
            Someone's hurt? I thought.  God, I hope I didn't run over anyone when that douche forced me out of my lane.
            My pulse racing, I sprinted to the motionless figure to see if I could help.  A flitter of guilt passed through my mind as I also wondered what hitting someone else would mean for my future.
            Another person came out of a nearby house and ran towards the crowd.  "I called 911.  Someone should be here soon."
            "I also called them," said the first woman.
            I wanted to just fade away and hope no one noticed, but since it was my car that caused all of this - as well as whoever the guy was that ran off - I couldn't disappear.  Walt had at least pounded that into my skull.
            The man standing next to me tore the blanket with his teeth and ripped it into long strips before trying to tie them around several parts of the carcass.  Even Mr. Johnson's biology class from sophomore year hadn't prepared me for seeing this hunk of meat.
            "Anything I can do to help?" I tentatively asked.  The man ignored me and kept tying cloth strips onto the thing.
            I could tell just by the sight of it that there wasn't anything that could be done for the poor bastard.  His skin looked like ground up hamburger, occasionally punctured by shards of bone.  The guy's arm twisted itself around his back, and his face was buried in the concrete.  There was a pool of blood around what I think was his head, as well as more blood smeared on his legs and what was left of his University of North Carolina t-shirt.
            Sweet Jesus, I thought once things started to soak in.  That's my UNC t-shirt.
            Normally I'd have noticed the sirens wailing as they approached, but my mind was now blocking out almost everything but the grotesque body laying to my front.  Looking closer, I saw blood matting the hair.  Although red obscured the color, the style was unmistakably mine.
            "There's nothing you can do for that boy," someone in the crowd ventured.
            The man working on my body ignored them and kept trying to stem the flow from untold number of wounds.  I was glad he kept working, but the pit of my stomach dropped.  A sound escaped my mouth that would have made my buddies laugh if they'd ever heard it.
            I shrieked.
            In my mind, the sound shook the ground, but nobody reacted.  My heart felt like it was trying to beat its way out of my chest, as if it could will me back to life.  The small part of my brain that helped me get into UNC in the first place told me that my heart couldn't be beating any more than it could sing, but I didn't listen.
            "Help me turn him over," said the man.
            "I don't think we should move him," said someone else.
            "We're gonna have to if we want to get at the wounds on his face," said the man.  "Just help me."
            Two others knelt by my body while the first man put his goop covered hand under my head.  They gently rolled me over, but the sight of what used to be my face only confirmed that it was too late.
            The guy by my waist covered his eyes and turned around.  Someone in the crowd sounded like they were going to barf.  None of this was what you'd call comforting.
            An ambulance finally roared up.  Two guys in white raced out, one of them holding a yellow backboard.  They pushed their way through the crowd and started working on me, for all the good it would do.
            “Amazing, isn’t it?”
            I looked around to find the source of the new voice and saw a shimmering gray figure.  Wisps of smoke hid his feet, and it looked like this new arrival was hidden by curtains.
            “What?” I responded.
            “That people try to bring back to life that which is already gone,” said the figure.  “They know you’re dead, but their hearts won’t allow them to accept it yet.”
            I opened my mouth several times, but words wouldn't come.  I'd been hoping it was all a mistake, that I’d wake up at home or in the hospital and ready to laugh about this dream.  It couldn't be real.  I had plans – homecoming was this Friday and the gang and I planned a great night after the game.  I’d already “acquired” beer from the fridge in the garage.
            "Who are you?" I finally managed.
            "My name is Alexander, and I'm here to help your transition.  There is much to discuss."
            Shaking my head, I said, "No, this can't be happening.  Mom and Walt will flip out, and there's no way Kathy can make it till graduation without me.  Me and Tim are gonna be roommates next Fall, so what is he supposed to do?"
            "You have an inflated sense of your importance," Alexander said.  "They'll find a way to cope.  Yes, there will be grief, but life will continue, just as it always has.  You'll provide inspiration for some, and smiles down the road as memories become less painful.  You'll never fade completely from their hearts."
            "But those people can save me!" I yelled, jabbing my finger at the still working paramedics.
            Now I sensed pity from Alexander, even if I still couldn't see him very well.  "No, they can't.  It's not like you can just slip back into that meat suit.  Look at it - it's mangled.  If your soul managed to somehow reintegrate with it, you'd be a burden to those you claim to love.  It's not the way things are done."
            "But I'm only 18!"
            "Your death wasn't my call," Alexander said.  " That decision was made long before today and written into the annals of fate while you grew in your mother’s womb.  My job is simply to take you to the other side.”
            "I don't want to go."  Even in my own ears it sounded pouty.  I was glad Kathy never heard me whine like that.
            "This is the natural order.  Do you think you're the first one who was shocked at their death and didn't want to leave?  It happens all the time, especially among the young, but the cycle of life will be thrown out of balance if we were to accede to your request."
            Tears brimmed in my eyes.  I tried to hold them in - Walt drummed into me that a man doesn't cry unless he's missing a limb - but a couple spilled down my cheek anyway.  Alexander placed a shimmering hand on my shoulder, and I felt electricity pop into what would be muscles if I was alive.  A small whirring noise began to vibrate on the wind, a low hum that was growing louder.
            "We need to go," Alexander said, a note of impatience in his voice.  "You're not allowed to linger, and those who defy the natural order are forced to mindlessly wander Earth for decades, sometimes centuries, before being offered another chance to cross the Great Barrier."
            The paramedics were still working on me, but I knew what they were doing was mostly for show.  I was no longer in there.
            I still couldn't see Alexander's face.  The gray figure flickered for an instant before turning and walking to the middle of the road.  He held out a hand and traced a circle in the air.  The area inside the circle grew dim before exploding in a shower of light.  Once the light died, mist that shimmered silver at the edges appeared, and I felt a gentle tug.
            Alexander motioned for me to join him, and I briefly thought I felt a new presence as the hum grew louder around me, but it was overwhelmed by the portal.  I exhaled and slumped my shoulders a bit before trudging forward.  I didn't even bother glancing back at the crowd or the now empty shell they were gathered around.
            I felt like I was being pulled by the inside of my ribcage, but that was unnecessary.  This had to happen, so, bracing myself, I lowered my head and walked into the portal.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Evolving Fantasies

Every book I've ever written started out as a fantasy of mine.  No, I don't mean that I was hoping in any way for my family to be killed or for the world to end, but rather that these were daydreams I had at some point that I wanted flushed out into greater stories.  I always have great initial visions of how these will work out, and the final product is just a few keystrokes away.

However, it doesn't always work out like that.

None of the stories I've imagined ever end up like how they began.  It can be challenging at times when you realize that the way you first thought a story would go won't work.  Many times I've found myself saying that I should just write it the way I first envisioned, and to hell with the consequences.  Then my more sane side comes in - yes, I have one of those, buried deep though it is - and reminds me that good stories evolve over time as they become more fleshed out.
(Requires more cooking to become a man)
Several parts of Salvation Day looked different in my mind's eye than they looked once they got on paper.  When initially envisioned, they looked so clean and polished, but when it came time to write them, the way I thought they'd be no longer fit the story.  Yes, the basics remained, but I had very specific visions, and now those visions had to be altered if the book was to make sense.

It's hard to give up our visions sometimes.  It's like giving up a child - we have definite plans, as well as a path forward for that which we've reared.  Sometimes, though, that child has its own dreams, and its final path looks much different than what the parent thought it would be.  That can make us wonder whether it's worth it sometimes, but once we accept that the end result will likely be better than what we thought in the first place, it can be enormous fun.

My next challenge in this regard is going to be the novel I plan to start in January.  It's an apocalyptic thriller called The Onyx Cluster, and the story has been floating around my brain for the better part of ten years.  It has changed a little over time, but I know it's going to go down wells I didn't even know were there.  Sometimes it feels like abandoning a friend when I have to change the vision, but there's always a better friend waiting at the end of the road.  Therefore I face the coming prospect with both trepidation and excitement.  Who knows what the future will bring!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Words, Words, Words

There's loads of writing advice everywhere out there, most notably from literary agents.  These self appointed gatekeepers have a litany of dos and don'ts they preach must be followed.  If these guidelines are violated, you're a loser, a failure, destined to never accomplish anything in publishing.  And the most glaring of these rules is when you're given a word count goal.

The basic guidance is that if you write anything too long, the reader will give up, bored beyond belief.  Most agents won't touch anything over a certain word count because they feel it'll be unsellable.  Fortunately, the rise of independent publishing is testing these sacred boundaries.

What got me thinking about this was my recent reading of Doctor Sleep.  King's latest book is a fast read, and nowhere near the mindboggling length of some of his other works like The Stand or The Dark Tower.  As I neared the end, I found myself wondering at its overall length.  I know page count is meaningless since there are different sizes and different fonts, so I did some random samplings and assembled an approximate word count.  Imagine my surprise when I found that it was around 170,000 words, give or take 10,000 either way.

Before I start getting hate mail, I fully acknowledge that I'm not Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer.  I know that bestselling writers like them can break a few rules and get away with it due to the already established fan following.  However, the 170,000 words I flew through were hardly burdensome.  It seemed to be a fairly normal size book, thick enough to provide depth, but not so big that it turns people off.  That got me thinking about the established rules of writing and how much they applied.

In looking around and finding lots of skinny books on shelves out there, I think I found the answer - too many in the publishing world assume the average reader has the attention span of a gnat.  They want things that appeal to the lowest common denominator, so they discourage books of true depth from coming out.  Once I realized this, I found it much easier to ignore.

None of this is to say that stories must be so thick that only a body builder can lift it, or that any writer can pull off such a project.  However, what is does say to me is that we needn't be constrained by artificial bonds.  If a story takes longer than 150,000 words to write, then the writer should do so.  As long as the story will support it and you've eliminated the fluff, why not?  A good book will keep a reader engaged beyond the usual guidelines, and artificially limiting what you're writing is a great way to build a flimsy story, and readers will discover it quickly.

So let loose with your imagination, and don't let others dictate your story just because they have a false notion of what right looks like.  Only you know the book you want to write, so it's up to you to write it.  Do it without fear.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Editing Revisited

Every time I think I have it all figured out, something changes.  I admit that I went into my latest edit of Wrongful Death with a certain amount of conceit.  I'd been through two rounds of pretty major edits, so I figured that this final time was a mere formality.  After all, I'd done some great work the previous two times.

For background information, my third edit is the one where I read the novel as if I was just another reader.  The first two were to cut and cull, but the last edit is to tweak.  Plus, I've grown much more proud of the novel as time has gone on, and I think it evokes a great emotional reaction.  Therefore, I was looking forward to having a grand old time.

Nothing in this preface is to intimate that I'm not enjoying myself on this final round of editing.  However, I've learned once again that I'm not the great master of prose I thought I was.  Going back through, there are lots of things I've reworked.  Oh, nothing from the point of view of the story, but rather how the story sounds when read.  There are more repeat words than I thought there'd be, and some of what is on the page is just awkward.  I've had to do more tweaking than I originally thought I would, and it has been humbling.

Such things are probably good for us.  We writers are often of two minds, one that is insecure and convinced that no one will ever want to read our stuff, and one that wonders how the world ever got along without us.  When I drift too far into the second camp, I only need to go back into what I was certain was a "finished" product.  At that point, I discover that a good deal of what I wrote is still raw.

I've even learned this with so-called completed work.  Akeldama has been finished for a while, and it's slated to be my first release in May of 2016.  I proudly gave it to someone a while back, only to find she wasn't as enthusiastic as I'd hoped.  She hemmed and hawed in the same way I do when I don't want to hurt someone's feelings.  When I finally broke through the barrier, she told me that the beginning was slow.

She just doesn't know what good literature is, my wounded ego thought.  Then I went back and re-read the first chapter.  To my dismay, I found she was right.  The action picks up eventually, but getting there was a chore.  And it's not even the first chapter - it's the first half of the first chapter.  We're always told to start strong, but this was flat.  So I did something I was loathe to do but felt I needed to - I re-wrote the part in question, and I found a way to give it more excitement.  The basic storyline is still there - it starts with the main character finishing a vampire hunt - but the earlier version was clumsy.  After bringing it back up to speed, I'm much happier with it.

What this demonstrates...yet that I can always do better, and more experience is key to that, as is being able to objectively evaluate your own work.  I've found myself in the past couple of weeks wondering how often Stephen King or JK Rowling find themselves in a position where they poured their heart into something, only to find that it requires more work.  Once discovered, do they have the same initial sense of loathing, as well as the same satisfaction once the re-write is complete?

We should all take heart from things like this, since it shows we can get better, and that leads to better stories down the line.  If we ever get to the point where we feel we can't get any better, we need to hang it up, because our work is about to get very bad.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Sequel Mania!

As regular readers will know, The Shining was one of the most influential books I've read.  My world opened up afterwards as I began to understand how to build tension.  It will always be one of my favorites.

It was on this note that I picked up the long anticipated sequel to it - Doctor Sleep.  The novel arrived at my house on last Wednesday, and I finished it up this previous Tuesday.  It's a quick read, but it doesn't measure up to the first.  The sheer terror of The Shining isn't present, and there's never any doubt as to the outcome.  In fact, I kind of figured out the specifics about halfway through.  Don't get me wrong, it's still a good book, but The Shining was a masterpiece, and Doctor Sleep...wasn't.
(Good but not great)
The afterword by Stephen King himself affirms all of this.  He acknowledges that there's no way that Doctor Sleep could measure up to The Shining because the writer who wrote it no longer exists.  King has grown and changed over the years, and his style isn't the same as it was in the 1970s.  Further, he says that no sequel ever measures up to the original.

That got me wondering why.

We all look forward to sequels with great anticipation, but they almost never pan out as we envisioned.  The fault usually lies with ourselves.  Once immersed in a particular universe, we have our own ways we envision that universe unfolding.  We then try to impose that view of what's to come over what actually gets written, and the results rarely please.

This got me to thinking about Canidae, the novel I finished last year that's the sequel to Akeldama.  I tried writing it as a reader, and it didn't meet the quality of the first.  I intend to go back in and re-write several portions(limit the scope in some places while expanding on character aspects in the others), and hopefully bring it up to a better standard.

Think about it - when we love a story, we want to know what happens afterwards.  Did they live happily ever after?  Did they have more adventures?  We care about the characters and want them to be okay, which pushes us to buy the sequels.  However, that story is rarely part of the original plan, so it gets thrown together.  King admits that he thought about Danny Torrance, but there was never a true plan to revisit him until recently.  That meant the story came out good, but it would've been just as good as a stand alone with new characters.  However, nostalgia for the first brought business, so why not?

Series work well if planned in advance, and maybe that's something we writers need to plan for.  I love stand alone work, but we can always revisit things, so we should give thought to what might be in advance rather than throwing something together that's kind of related to what we've written.  If such a thing is a challenge for a master like King, what does that say about the rest of us?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Convenient-ish Circumstances

When readers pick up a well though out novel, the storyline appears seamless.  One plot point flows into another, and each character acts consistently within their personality to find a solution to whatever question is central to the book.

Or so it would seem.

As I got close to the ending of Homecoming, I found myself searching for solutions to the problem I'd created.  I had a general idea of how I wanted the novel to end, but I wasn't sure how I could do it in a way the reader would plausible within the context of the universe they were indulged in.  Then it hit me - I'd introduced a plot device nearly 20,000 words ago that was intended to show how far we'd come in hijacking another race's technology but never meant to be central to the story.  However, that plot device was now a perfect vessel to bring about the ending I wanted.

I even cackled when I discovered this(yes, I cackle...most evil bastards do that), and I found myself wondering how many other writers employ this as a means to resolve things in their books.  It's not like I thought my throwaway would be necessary as the book wound along - it was just something fun.  However, it fit so perfectly that I found myself wondering if it was divinely inspired.  I thought, Did Stephen King always mean for the boiler to explode at the Overlook?  When JK Rowling devised the coins imbued with a protean charm in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, did she know that those coins would come in handy for the DA members to communicate in book 7?

How much great writing is planned out and how much is happy coincidence?  Looking back at my own work, I found that I'd done similar things at a rate of about 50/50.  Sometimes I planned things out in intricate detail and deliberately steered the story towards a place I knew those little snippets would come in handy later.  In fact, most readers enjoy going back through works they enjoyed and finding the nuggets they missed that would later prove crucial.  But there were also times when I needed something to make it all click, and I noticed something never intended to be that important, but it worked when plugged into place.

I'm now convinced that there are loads of other writers out there who are similar to me in that regard.  Most of our stories have always been nebulous so that they can develop on their own as we write them, and that illusion comes only after they're in print and look nice and shiny under a glossy cover.  Knowing this on a conscious level helps make things easier and takes the pressure off when writing - I can now accept that there are times when it's okay to just let things develop and that my previous writing can save the day.

I also will continue to snicker when I think of how many readers may never know that about their favorite authors.