Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Writing Season!

You can tell by the shadow that there aren't leaves left
on the tree. They're symbolic of the ideas that I'm using
in this year's NaNoWriMo novel.
NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow. Updates from this point through November will concern the new novel I'm writing and the progress therein. It may be that I'll post more than Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or it may be that I don't post that often or if I do it may not be on any sort of schedule whatsoever.

Welcome to my New World.

Tomorrow night (Thursday), if you're in Lawrence, Kansas, I will be appearing with my friends and cohorts from the Confabulator Cafe at the Lawrence Public Library's NaNo kickoff, the details whereof you can find by making the clicky here. It promises to be fun. If you live close by and you're interested please do come down and help make us insecure writer-types feel interesting and welcomed.

So - back to my New World.

I'm in a new job at a new company for the first time in 22 years and I'm good with that. It just means that (being the new guy) I get to learn everything about my job and on the job's schedule rather than my own. I was very comfortable in the Old World and I had - and was able to make - time to pursue my NaNo objectives. Every year was slightly more ambitious. Can't do that this year so that's my big challenge: to make NaNo objectives that are achievable and still tap all the energy I found last year.

That's a tall order, hombre.

But I can do it. Here are my goals:

  • 50,000 words by the end of November. (duh, that everyone's goal in November.)
  • I'd like to average 2,000 words per day when I can write. 
  • I'd like to write every day
  • Have a Zero Draft of the novel (100,000 words!) done by December 31st.
These seem like modest goals. I think I can do this. Actually, I'm pretty sure I can do this. It's going to happen because, dammit, I'm a capital-W Writer.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Things Which Must Be Done... (conclusion)

In case you missed it - last Friday at the Confabulator Cafe I posted the first part of a new short story The Things Which Must Be Done...  and you should definitely read that before you read this. 

I came to with a splash. The escape artist’s water torture chamber was chest deep with water and sealed tight. Not air tight or I wouldn’t be able to breathe. Anyway. 
Raeth, the ringmaster was sitting backwards on a lion-tamer’s chair. Her top hat was next to her but she still had her costume on. “There you are,” she said. Behind her was Carolita and the strongman. There were others, too. And more in the shadows. I was in the back of the big top, I thought. There was sawdust everywhere. Raeth chewed her bottom lip. “I wasn’t sure we’d get you, Ffecti. Carolita here found the whirlies, didn’t you, my dear?” She never took her eyes off me.
“It seemed a simple enough ruse,” Carolita said. “He’s as weak as the others, too.”
Arguing the point while I was bound hand and foot in a locked tank full of water seemed silly. “So you’re the Porter,” I said, raising my voice so they could hear me through the glass. “You seemed so sweet at the gate.”
“Did I? I thought you were too busy checking out my tits,” Carolita said. She pulled down the front of her costume. “They are pretty spectacular after all.” I tried not to look. I really did. Finally she covered up and Raeth cleared her throat.
“Bring the whirlies,” she said. The strongman and one other left the ring of light. “Now that I finally have you, Ffecti, what will do with you?”
“Letting me go would be best, “I said. “You know the Bureau won’t stop hunting you.”
“It won’t matter much when the whirlies do their thing and Carolita does hers,” Raeth said, standing up and smoothing down her gaudy jacket. She walked over to the tank. “The days of the Bureau are numbered.”
“I’ll have to stop you,” I said.
“You can’t,” Raeth said. “Fill it.”
The rush of cold water over my head was too surprising. Raeth knocked on the glass and smiled, gave me a little wave. “For my father I wish I could kill you more slowly, more personally, but I’m on a schedule that’s more important. We won’t meet again.” She left the ring of light and all the onlookers filed out behind her. Carolita was the last and she blew me a kiss before she turned off the light. I took one last gasp of air and tried to hold on.


Of course I got out. It’s not as hard as it sounds because I’d already gotten free of the handcuffs on my wrists just after the lights went out and I knew I could break the glass to my left because I could sense the flaw just above the band that made the device look even more medieval. By the time the sound and the rush of water were noticed, I’d melted back into the shadows. They were all going to have to die. They were all in on it.
My training was extensive and the Bureau invested in my department heavily to ensure that we kept fit and did our jobs at the highest level of proficiency. I had even taught a couple of classes in moving across lighted areas with impunity. I worked my way through the crew, the daredevils, and then the performers. They all got in my way trying to keep me from reaching Carolita, Raeth, and the girls. I regretted killing a couple of them: conjoined twin boys who were barely sixteen and begged for their mother before I separated them.
The strongman was the hardest of the performers to kill. He actually had some fighting skills. He kicked and punched very, very hard. Cracked two of my ribs, even. But it’s hard to stop a clown with a kris, especially when he’s me and I’m dead-set on getting what I want.
Yeah, I let my real face show, and my uniform. I know I’m not supposed to, I know it’s against Bureau rules but I was fighting pretty hard. I mean this was upper level gamesmanship, trust me. I couldn’t keep up the appearance. Write me up, sue me. Do whatever you have to.
Sorry. Look, The blue and white makeup, the orange hair, the loud suit, I promise you no one was left alive who could describe me. Right. I’ll get on with it.
The tilt-a-whirl. That’s where I found them. That barf-sodden staple of every carnival, circus, and amusement park. It was one of the ones that have suspended chairs and go up then tilt on an angle, right? Carolita was perched atop the damned thing on a column in the center that somehow wasn’t moving. The arms whizzed past her back, missing her by mere inches as far as I could tell.  She was in a trance as the machine spun crazily all around her. I caught flashes of the girls strapped inside. They were screaming and glowing with an unearthly orange fire that streaked behind them. The sound was a roar of hydraulics and gears and whines that complemented the girls’ screams and Carolita’s chanting like chocolate is complemented by broken glass.
“You!” Raeth was coming my way. She glowed, too, with a hellish-looking blue lightning that shot sparks in response to her anger. “Why won’t your kind just die?” 
The ringmaster’s job in a summoning is to provide that extra burst of oomph that helps the Porter pull through whichever demon spawn they’re trying to get at. Sort of grease the passage, if you know what I mean.
Regardless, she was coming at me at nearly full power. I know it says in my jacket that I’m pretty tough, but I was a little scared about the gigawatts she was throwing off. This wasn’t going to be pleasant.
She grabbed me and kneed my balls. The shock was bad, the knee was worse. I doubled over and she reached down to grab me and pull me up. 
That’s when I slid the ceramic kris in her chest. The look of surprise on her face was priceless until I pressed the stud on the pommel of the knife and sent the ionic charge through her. The explosion was an exclamation point that spattered Raeth’s insides all over the controls of the tilt-a-whirl. It took a couple of seconds for her brain to register what had just happened and she said, “Fuuu — “ before she fell away from me and the kris.
The tilt-a-whirl immediately became unbalanced and the center pole, the one that Carolita was standing on, teetered and dumped her off. Her body fell into the whirling machinery and she was instantly obliterated in a spray of red. The girls were still screaming but the machine was slowing down finally and slammed the control to the off position and waited. 
They were in separate chairs, across from one another and they were terrified, crying. I wasn’t any kind of reassuring sight, I can promise you that. Nonetheless I went to the nearest girl. 
“What’s your name?” I tried to sound friendly. 
“Dorothy,” she said. Twelve years old and still wearing her pajamas, Dorothy tried to put on a brave face. 
“I’m sorry I have to do this,” I said and drew the kris across her throat. “It’s necessary, though.” Her eyes went wide and she gasped, choking on the blood that welled up in the cut I’d made. I stood up and watched Dorothy struggle through her last moments.
The girls had to die. They were too powerful and there was still the biggest ringmaster out there. Someday he might come after these two and I might not be around to stop him. What? Yeah, I feel awful about it. These girls didn’t do anything to deserve this. I was just following orders. That’s me, a good clown.
I walked over to the other girl. “Hi,” I said. “What’s your name?” I was covered in blood and my uniform was a wreck but I smiled anyway. The girl screamed.
I never found out her name. I had to shut her up. Couldn’t risk anyone hearing her.
So that’s what happened. I saved the world and terrified two little girls who shouldn’t have been terrified. If I’d managed to get to them before Raeth’s Spider had, they would have died in their sleep without knowing what happened to them.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sitting in the Cafe

It's Friday and I'm over at the Confabulator Cafe today telling you a story of a Dark Carnival. Well, the first part, anyway. I'll explain.

Once a month the Cafe writers get an assignment to write a flash fiction (around 1000 words) off a particular prompt. In September we wrote about Revenge. (If you didn't see my story because I didn't point you to it, it's called What Is Best in Life. Yeah, I stole the title from the Conan movie. Get over it. I really like that story and think it's among the best I've written there.) You can check out all the things I've written for the Cafe and links to the individual stories I wrote under the banner The Long Range by visiting the Free Stories tab at the top of the page.

So this month's story was suggested by Larry Jenkins because of the season and how many of us in the Cafe are Ray Bradbury fans. Something Wicked This Way Comes definitely has all the creepy Halloween elements and fantasy bits that inspire me to want to tell stories. Larry's a fantastic writer and you simply must read his flash fictions because he hasn't got anything else out in the public yet. (At least not that I know of. I assume he'll let me know now.)

Bradbury had an effect on me when I wrote The Receivers, and Something Wicked definitely inspired some of the visuals I used. Anyway, as I started writing my story about the Dark Carnival, it kept getting longer and longer. A third of the way through I knew it was not just a flash fiction. There was a larger story going on here and I needed to tell it all.

Thus, you get part one today at the Cafe and then part two will arrive here on Monday. Which will be a perfect kickoff to the month of November when I'm knee deep in NaNoWriMo. (Which I realize isn't until the following Thursday but let's not get our timelines all foggy just because I'm writing these posts in advance. How far in advance, you wonder? Only a week or so. But still - I won't be the same person I was when I wrote these words.)

Why make you wait? Not for any sinister reason other than it pleases me to do so. I want to see how many of you read the first part then come over here to read the conclusion. It's worth the wait, I promise. It's a really, really dark story. It's violent in the end and it has everything that I love about Halloween and all the things that scare the hell out of me, too.

Hang in there. Go read my story. Go read everyone else's stories, too. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: The Music

I didn't used to need music to write to. I suppose I still don't, but I've finally figured out what sorts of music inspires me to write with a little more abandon.

My iPod has I don't know how many thousands of songs on it - and the iPad does now, too - and of course that's all stored on the laptop. (A MacBook Pro, yes I'm an Apple victim. Shut up.) I also have a Bose sound dock that I can listen to XM and the iPod through so if I need some room-filling, epic music to get my tired fingers flying over the keyboard, I can do that. There are CD player boomboxes throughout the house, too.

No, I don't wear headphones or earbuds or anything like that unless someone else is home. Since I tend to write in the mornings (except during NaNo when any time of day is fair game) I don't usually need them. And since this year I've gotten very comfortable writing in my home office (as opposed to last year at the dining room table) I don't think I'll have to wear headphones much at all this year.

What am I listening to? I hear you asking. Even if you didn't, let's pretend. Here's a sample of a couple of playlists.

Last year was mostly Hans Zimmer's Dark Knight and Inception soundtracks. I think it reflects in the writing of the novel because it helped me keep the excitement level up. About halfway through the month I built another playlist that had some rock stuff mixed in with the film scores and that kept the levels up. Some Godsmack, Alice in Chains, Anthrax, Metallica, and just about anything else that had some relentless energy to it.

But I also have a soft spot for just about any Thomas Newman soundtrack and David Holmes' rather brilliant Ocean's 12. With Newman, Road to Perdition lets me sink into some melancholy while the wide-ranging instrumentation of A Series of Unfortunate Events lets me open up to the bizarre. These things didn't creep too much into the writing because they weren't necessary to tell the story but in the end they did help inform some feelings the characters had. The Adjustment Bureau soundtrack has a nice mix of rock and film score all on its own and that's been one that is in rotation since spring.

It's not about the stories of the scores. It's about the energy of the music. The things I listen to have to have a wide variety of energies that, while familiar, allow me to explore what those energies are doing to my brain as I listen. I don't tune them out, but my listening isn't always active. Sometimes I will put a list on and two hours later wonder why I didn't hear Pearl Jam's Ten play because that's what I wanted to listen to when I sat my butt in the chair and put my fingers on the keys.

Turns out I was so lost in the story I listened but I didn't hear. So I guess I don't need to have music playing when I'm in The Zone writing, but it sure helps.

Monday, October 22, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: Character Profiles

The Scrivener Character Sheet.
This is all I really need to know about a character before
I start writing. That said, the notes section can get
pretty detailed with little things as I think of them.
Something I learned (yet ANOTHER thing, I know) from last year's very successful NaNoWriMo 'win' is that I need to have some idea of who the main characters are and what their motivation is.

I struggled for a long, long time trying to figure out how best to do this. I looked up character sheets on the web (overwhelmingly numerous and tedious in any number of respects) and I played with things like D&D character sheets because they briefly appealed to my inner teenager. Nancy Kress' character worksheet in her book Dynamic Characters was too much. Too detailed. I liked it, I tried to use it - I did! - but it just didn't work for me. I didn't need to know everything she did or wanted others to know, too.

I remember a very brief, like 20 Questions, kind of character sheet that I had in one of my writing reference books but I never found it. It might have been in one of the books I gave away or sold. I don't know.

And all the other books I have on writing, each one of them has valuable things about character and developing that character throughout the stories one writes. I had a plethora of information at my fingertips if I could only figure out how to use it.

But NaNo is about writing as much as you can fast as you can. You're not supposed to over think things, just blast 'em out and worry about scraping the crap off your shoes later.

After my first win at NaNo, I downloaded one of the 'goodies' - a little program called Scrivener. I've touted it here and at the Confabulator Cafe, too. One of the goodies in this program is their character sheet. Because I can just keep it to the left of the window I'm writing in, I use these sheets to help me keep things straight. Yes, I work in things from the other character sheets I've used in the past, but only if they occur to me. If I have a sheet that has forty-seven things I simply - must - know I feel overwhelmed.

Writing is supposed to be a comfortable occupation. There are times when I squirm because of what I have to write (a short story for the Cafe as a recent example) but setting everything up to start writing shouldn't be uncomfortable at all.

A long time ago (god, has it been thirteen years?) I sat at a dinner table with my friend Rob Schamberger and a bunch of other wannabe creators (not a derogatory term, I assure you) and he gave me a bit of wisdom that I use in every story: Your main character has to tell an anecdote in the story. Has to be done. He's right. I adds a lot to any tale to have something like that in there. Story within a story.

So I include that in the notes. It's almost always a line like "Tells a story about a family pet" or "remembers the one that got away". It's never detailed. I wait to find out what that story may be and how it might be relevant. It's a revealing moment for a character. Try to work one in if you can. Sometimes it's difficult but if you can do it, use that to show something about your hero. Or villain. Or a key supporting character.

I gotta git, though. I have to build some people up. November 1st is getting closer and closer.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I read this article the other day that talked about supporting authors. I don't agree with everything in what Ms. Merchant says here, but there are a couple of things we can maybe explore and see if we can't come up with something for authors of different stripes.

Let's start with this statement:

I've heard this before, I think, but Swartwood says it
succinctly. Check out his TweetStream.

AND we tip cabbies, hairdressers, servers at restaurants, bars, and just about anywhere else we might be aware that people are working for a low wage. Why do people think that every author is well-compensated? Because they don't see things like this:

This is from a post by Meghan Ward at her blog
Writerland. Go read the post in its entirety here.

and all they hear about are the enormous sums that well-established authors and celebrities get for memoirs. Look at the chart (from an excellent post on Meghan Ward's Writerland blog) and see where crime writers fall, where a writer of novellas came in. Right there at the bottom. Here's an interesting comment by the author in response to a question from one of her readers:

...the median for small publishers is $7500. That includes a $135,000 2-book deal that I counted as two separate deals and four other six-figure deals. Many were $5000, $7500, or $15,000. Hope that helps.
This isn't sales, folks. This is the money that a publisher pays to the author up front to either finish the book or start work on the next one. So while the top figure in Ms. Ward's quote is $135K for two books, how far does $5,000 go in a writer's world? Or even $15,000? That's less than minimum wage. That's borderline poverty.

Ms. Merchant, whose article is linked up above, says we lack the social conventions to know how to properly support authors. What do they provide? Entertainment. How do we compensate entertainers? With our dollars direct to promoters or vendors who are offering the product. A live show, a movie, a book in a bookstore. Or a grocery store. Or the pharmacy. Sometimes even the gas station.

I argue that we do know how - we buy the books. But if, as Mr. Swartwood points out, society spends $6 or more every day or even three or four times a week on coffee and sugar, people will gripe about the price of ebooks and books in general. They always have. I'm just as bad in the bookstore as anyone else looking for the bargains, the remaindered titles I'd always meant to buy but never did.

It's not beyond the pale to believe that as much as another dollar goes into the tip jar for 60% of the coffees that a barista makes. Not everyone tips. I would bet a lot of baristas are making a base salary close to minimum wage but I don't have any facts to support that. Let's presuppose that, though. Let's say they don't absolutely depend on those tips, just for the sake of argument. Perhaps the tips are enough to give that barista enough to buy a cup of coffee somewhere else.

Because that barista may, in fact be an author, working on a manuscript at night. In effect, working that second job with dreams of an advance that might allow her to quit slinging coffee.

Look, what authors are fighting is perception. It's bad form to talk about money, I understand that, but until the general public gets it that publishers' wells are not bottomless for a lot of reasons it's probably going to have to be done. A lot of authors are self-publishing because that's where the money is. They make more per sale doing that. What happens is that those authors whose books are not acquired by a publisher think they'll be successful in the arena of self-pubbing.

But not if they don't put some professional-level effort into it. Get editors. Proof read the hell out of your manuscript. Make sure it's what you want to put out there.

And tell your friends how much work it is. Don't let them denigrate your art, your creativity. Be proud of what you do and wear that pride like a backstage pass at your favorite concert. But don't just do it on your blog or your website or Facebook or Twitter, be proud in your everyday life. At your day job. Don't hide that you're a writer. Don't be embarrassed that you tell stories. By the same token, don't beat people over the head with it, either.

Talking out loud about your passion for writing and telling stories is okay. When someone insinuates you'll be moving on when you get picked up by a publisher, let them know what money there isn't in publishing unless your name is Grisham, King or even Cornwell.

You'll win support by being proud of what you do and doing it very, very well. People will buy your books.

But I started this post with the idea that people spend money on fleeting things and gripe about the high price of something they could potentially keep forever. I've wandered a little bit through this but I want to leave you with this final point: society pays for entertainment but they feel overcharged. They will pay a heady price for something they believe they need (like sugary coffee they could really make at home) and gripe about the price of a book.

Again, fighting perceptions. Somehow books and reading aren't considered worthwhile. I don't know how that happened, but I spend a grand total of $17 a month on coffee I make at home and I don't have to stand in line somewhere (or wait at a drive thru) to get what amounts to hot soda. I spend money on books and entertainment and I don't worry about it.

I'm not sure what my point ultimately was when I started writing this, but - look, as an author you have to support authors. I agree with Ms. Merchant's idea about gifting books you hope people would like. I think that's an excellent way to support authors. When the perception is, though, that authors who are published are rich we need - as a community of authors - need to say that we're working a second job to be an author. You think it's easy? You try it.

Then encourage everyone around you to be as supportive as you are of your friends in that community.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Sidewalk Ends

Shel Silverstein had it right. Image from his excellent
collection of poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends and swiped
from this website.
Variety is the spice of life, they say, but variety should exist in multiple spaces causing us to travel and interact. Don't you think?

Every time I go to the grocery store I bemoan the machines and displays that clutter up the front six feet of sidewalk. The Redbox, the LP gas tanks, two or more vending machines, pumpkins, flowers, a couple of guys grilling hot dogs and brats or ribs. Other things. Jeez, I mean, really. How much crap can you pack onto a sidewalk?

The grocery store sells new hardback 'bestsellers' in endcap displays, too. And movies. Then in the frozen food aisle they have dump boxes of more movies for 'value' prices. They've always had magazines and paperbacks and back in the old days they had comics, too. The grocery store didn't carry furniture. Jeez.

So when I pass someone browsing the video selection on the sidewalk and there might be two or three people waiting behind him, when I have to detour around them into the parking lot where the drivers are too busy texting to pay attention for pedestrians, I always curse. Not always out loud, but come on.

This is important because everyone around me, around all of us, are engrossed in their own worlds and oblivious to anything else. This is the grocery store for cryin' out loud. I'm not supposed to be able to get everything I need in one stop except for groceries.

I get the convenience on both ends of Redbox: the customer can get a movie 24/7, essentially from the comfort of her car. For the store, they get to offer essentially the same service without the expense of overhead or labor for employees to staff the desk. Plus they get all the floor space back to fill up with - you know, furniture.

And what gets lost in there are the individual stories. I would occasionally overhear or actually talk with with someone about why they were getting a particular film. I would hear from the staff in the video section why they did or didn't like what I was watching. I could get dinner and a movie in the same place and that made sense.

Sorry, but I don't trust buying household appliances or furniture from a grocery store.

Now, that said, I don't just write science fiction. I'm having a fun time writing in other genres as you can see if you visit the new Free Stories page here on the site. I don't pretend that I am better at writing horror than I am SF, but I dabble in horror and fantasy. Usually with a SF bent, but nonetheless...

Does that make me a hypocrite? I suppose if I was hawking furniture or alcohol instead of writing I might be. But writing in different styles or genres is still writing. It's still stories. When you come here looking for a particular kind of story you might just find it.

It's like the different brands and flavors of ice cream. Kind of.

That's me: the Ben & Jerry's of writing.

Monday, October 15, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: Research

A thing I learned last year from writing The Cold Distance is that the more I know about the things I'm writing about the harder it is to invent things about them. So the bigger lesson than that is simply to not know too much about a given subject.

You see, once I know a lot about something I can't help but be faithful to it. In the case of the upcoming novel, I need to know some about ghost towns and city-states and a little more about memory and how it works. I'm not giving away anything about the novel by listing these things because - as always - the story's about more than just that. Those are just details.

Let's explore a bit about memory, shall we?

What makes an individual remember something and what happens when a number of individuals who remember the same thing (albeit slightly differently to account for point of view) suddenly forget the same thing? Perhaps it's the idea that a memory shared is dangerous to all and something is trying to protect the constituents of the population center. If memory is embedded in our brains, then we know it can be overridden by a flood of memories surrounding it; when the individual becomes part of a mob.

Are there memories embedded in cities? Ever wandered through a ghost town or even a deserted, lonely stretch of your city and wondered what ghosts are wandering there? I don't think that kind of imagination is limited to people who are innately creative. People who are sensitive to so-called supernatural phenomena will see things the rest of us can't. Whether you choose to believe mediums can speak with the dead, I'm convinced that some can tap into the installed memories of a particular location.

Now the medium may or may not be for real, but certainly they are sensitive enough to read the flesh and blood people accompanying them. We've all seen the cold read done on TV shows like Leverage, right? It's a learned skill. So why couldn't doing a cold read on room looking for memories happen? I've read somewhere that anything can be embedded in a physical structure and by that I mean anything that affects our senses. Certainly smell can be: you've been in a place where the odor of smoke or sweat or cat pee is pervasive, I bet. How about tastes? Sight is easy, too. Sounds? What about tactile things? Can they be locked into a physical location?

Maybe these memories are implicit rather than explicit. Maybe our minds fill in the blanks with our own expectations and experiences in order to better process the data coming in.

Do you think cities do the same things? Are they masculine or feminine or both?

This is what I'm thinking about now that the book is out working the streets and I'm getting ready to write a new one that is tangentially related. I want to challenge myself to be daring and to write something that's just a little bit beyond me. I need to learn enough to be dangerous with a subject, to try and see which path is the best to explore.

I need to remember what it was that had me so excited last year, that enabled me to finish my longest and perhaps best-written work. I need those memories.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thinking About Cities

There are all sorts of gateways into a
city. Do each of them lead to the center or heart?

I'm diving into research for the next novel (which I'll begin November 1st just like every year for the last four) and I'm thinking about cities. Specifically mine, which is really more of an overgrown town. At least in my mind. This is going to be a bit of a ramble, some stream of consciousness and perhaps an insight into my thought processes. Feel free to call me out on any points that might conflict with your own. 

So what's a city? How does one determine what the heart of a city is? Is it different for each person?

Ah, definitions need to be set. It seems that a city can be a town but that a town isn't necessarily a city. It's based on population, establishment of government and the subsequent size of said government, and generally what the inhabitants think. We'll have to talk about villages, too, eventually. Then there's hamlets and encampments.

Damn, interchangeable terminology can get confusing.

For now, let's call them population centers, shall we? Because the novel will concern itself with population centers throughout time. 

And their hearts. And brains.

I should say at this point that hearts and brains are important to cities and often they seem lacking, especially when things change without any seeming regard for the inhabitants of a population center. 

Which leads me to wonder, can any discussion of cities not concern itself with the residents? Are they the heart of any city? It seems that's possible. What about the people who aren't there any more? The ones who moved away - are they still connected to their hometown, or the place where they came of age? Can they be called back? Will they come?

For the novel I'm preparing, all of these questions will have to be answered. Some to greater degrees than others.

So if we establish that cities are the largest population centers, then we have to wonder a lot about how it got that way and then - not just as a corollary - why do some population centers die? 

Over the next couple of weeks I'll drop some notes here about city-states, Atlantis, ghost towns and centers built specifically for industry. The novel is going to be a science fiction story with fantasy elements and it's going to be about cities. And the people in them. 

Can you tell I'm excited?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Penmonkey Asks and I Answer

This is what a penmonkey looks like. I've seen it firsthand
and let me tell you that everything that's here is essential
to my own writing. Your mileage may vary.
Image swiped from Chuck's site. Hope he doesn't mind.
Last week good ol' Chuck Wendig prompted his readers (count me among them) to self-evaluate their own writing. Here are his questions (in italics) with my answers.

How’s it going, writing-wise?

Better than ever, thanks for asking. I'm feeling like I'm really, really getting the hang of putting one word after another and stringing it all into a coherent story.

How goes progress on any current projects? Whatcha working on?

I've finished the latest revision of the novel I started last November and I've submitted it to a publisher. I'm crossing my fingers that they'll pick it up but I'm not holding my breath. It's easier to type for a longer period with crossed fingers. My wife doesn't much appreciate when I'm turning blue, either. So that's what I've been working on since summer. I've been talking about this since summer here on the blog if you've had the chance to take a look.

I'm also prepping the next novel which I'll start, of course, on November 1. It's another SF book with some fantasy elements. More on that later.

Any problems with said projects? Issues you’re having?

God, writing a query letter is harder than it sounds. Everything I came up with sounded not-quite-right on nearly every level. Finally something clicked and I knocked out the query and a synopsis (which I'd never written before) in a weekend. Somehow when someone asks me to do something I've never done before I run around like a headless chicken, flapping my arms and wondering how the hell it's going to get done. When I've worn myself out I sit down and start typing. Then I trash it all and start again. Everyone goes through that process, don't they?

Anything I or the lovely community of terribleminds can help with?

Hey, really - just knowing that you're all out there if I need you is enough. I appreciate you offering.

Beyond individual projects, how’s the bigger picture looking?

Pretty rosy. I'm heading towards the future with a bright light all around me. I feel like things are better than ever and I'm really, really looking forward to writing the next novel. And some short stories. And some flash fiction and blog posts for The Confabulator Cafe

What are your strengths as a writer and storyteller?

Ideas and dialogue. I also have the discipline to sit and do the work every day. I can see what I want to write and then start planning.

More importantly: what and where are your weaknesses?

Aw, jeez. Really? I have to put this out in public? Sometimes I dialogue too much and then the action suffers. I mean sometimes I forget that the characters have to do things before they can talk about them. Readers get bored with dialogue. I don't, but then I'm a weirdo. I like people talking. That's life. People talk.

The other big weakness in my Zero Drafts is that I don't make the danger dangerous enough. That's the thing I've been working on with every draft of every story for the last two years. I think I'm getting better and it goes hand in hand with over-dialoguing. So - yeah, that's what I keep working on.


That's the end of his questions. I didn't pop these into the replies under his post at his website, but Chuck seems to be the kind of guy who won't mind that I did it this way instead. He encourages us writerly-types to be writerly-types. He's as much an internet Jesus as Warren Ellis is, though with a different focus. His 250 (and sometimes 500) Things books are very helpful as reminders of why we write.

He's foul-mouthed and the images he stabs into his readers' brains with alacrity are startling to say the least, but he makes the point. Sit your butt down and write like you have a pair. 

Monday, October 08, 2012

NaNoWriMo Prep: Reading

I'm planning to write my fifth novel this November for National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo.

So besides just having the experience of writing four novels - well, really three complete ones, one that's stalled out at 65,000 words, and of those only one approaching anything like Good - there are some things that I have to do in order to get the most out of the month. The biggest one (besides planning the book, which I'll get to in another post) is reading an author I've never read before.

That may sound strange but here's the story behind that.

Back in 2008 when I did this the first time I picked up A Princess of Mars, which I had read more than twenty years before. I read it immediately before going into NaNo and had read some Ian Fleming (who I had never read before) because of a story on NPR about Quantum of Solace. I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs while I was writing and the style he wrote in - pulpy with sharp details in some places and not so many in others - had an effect on me. Coupled with trying to emulate Fleming I was successful in completing my 50,000 words in 30 days.

They weren't necessarily great, but they were good. Completing a story of that length definitely scratched an itch to tell stories. After a suitable time I went back to the story and read it.

Oof. The writing wasn't so great. The characters were okay, the story was sort of thrilling but it wasn't what I hoped it would be while I was writing.

Nevertheless, it sits in The Trunk and waits for a day when I can expand it, building elements of the sequel I wrote the next year for NaNo. My second try at writing a novel was a bit better but too influenced by more Fleming and more of Burroughs' Mars stories. It just wasn't there, still.

The next year I had expanded my reading to include some non-fiction (a biography of Roald Dahl), more urban fantasy (I finished Mike Carey's Felix Castor series), and more crime novels (Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, and Raymond Chandler). I also watched The Prisoner in its entirety. Not the reimagined one with Jim Caviezel and Gandalf/Magneto (all right, Ian McKellen - I know his name) but the original with Patrick McGoohan. Talk about paranoia and mind-blowing spy stuff. That was a huge influence on the third book. I've got Thomas Disch's Prisoner book to read on a shelf somewhere here, too.

But last year I was determined to write a really great science fiction story set off-world and featuring the kinds of things I loved about SF. So I read and re-read a couple of Year's Best SF compilations, some dark fantasy featuring Cthulhu mythology, some China Mieville and I recalled all my Heinlein. Then, right before I started writing and into the first week, I read the third Sandman Slim book by Richard Kadrey, Aloha From Hell.

And I came out of November with the best thing I'd ever written. I took all the things I'd been reading over the year and picked the best things I liked from them: the creepy, the violent, the strange, the fantastic and then I amped them up with some interesting romantic elements. (By romantic I mean space opera-type stuff though there's sex in the book, too. And love but it's not a bodice-ripper.) And all the stuff I'd been reading for the last four years just sort of poured out of me in a relentless whitewater of writing.

I recommend, for all you budding novelists out there, to read a wide variety of stuff. Read things you don't think you should read outside of school. Read Ray Bradbury, read Joe Hill, read Richard Matheson, read non-fiction and biographies. Read everything you can get your hands on. You'll be amazed at how much you'll be able to write. All the stuff you'll recall and emulate will help you in the long run.

And keep writing. I do it every day. I read every day, too. I try to get thirty or forty pages of whatever book I'm into read every day. It helps.

More about my NaNoWriMo prep rituals soon.

Friday, October 05, 2012

A Measure of Success

Cross the bridge and get yourself to the side of the river
where you believe you can be a writer. Just getting to
the bridge is a measure of success, too. Don't doubt that.
One thing I cannot do any more is compare where I'm at with where others that I perceive of my ability are. Writing isn't about competition, unless one is involved in a contest of some kind and of course everything you write - EVERYTHING -is subject to the taste of someone. Whether it's you or an editor or even your writing group who reads your stuff critically, someone is going to have an opinion of your work.

So comparing is just a way to get yourself frustrated. It's a trap that you can fall into and down a very deep, very black hole. Just don't do it. I don't and I never will.

The feedback from my writers group (some of whom are involved with The Confabulator Cafe) is the best I've ever gotten and they've made me a better writer. If I look at how well those who are giving me feedback are writing on their own (because we share our work from time to time with one another and you) I would probably just tear my hair out, start drinking heavily, and never write another world AGAIN.

The progress of the group this year has been amazing and inspiring. A bunch of us are submitting stories everywhere and everyone who has now has a story of being accepted by someone outside our little group. I know from experience how good that feels.

The other thing I can't do is measure my success against anyone else's. I have to be satisfied with my own writing first. Just like you. Just like everyone else in the writers group. (By the way, I mentioned once upon a time that I thought my group was a lot like the Montparnasse crowd and for now that seems to be holding true. I leave it to you to judge who is who.)

It's easy to say "I'm not as good as that person" when in fact you might be but because you are so close to your writing you can't see it. That's why it's important to have people you trust read your stuff. When they tell you something can be better you should believe them. By the same token when you're told that a piece of your writing is good, you should believe that, too.

I know it's difficult but you can do it. It's NOT impossible.

And that will be your track to getting a piece of writing accepted somewhere. Don't overworry it that you're not good enough. Your support group, those other writers whose work you like and may want to emulate, will mean it when they say that. Do not give into the Voices of Doubt. (That's my band's new name, by the way.) Shove that stuff aside and sit your butt down and start writing. Get those voices out of your head and into a story.

When you can write and look at something and say "Hey, this is pretty good" and your trusted readers come back with "Hey, this is pretty good" you'll know you're on your way.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Misadventure at the Library

Gotta remember when my next appointment is
because if I have to ask at the office I'll get such
sarcasm in reply.
Our work lives are filled with stories of the inane, the moronic, and the just-plain stupid. Right? The guy who comes in insisting one thing when the opposite is true. Or the woman who says she was told one thing on the phone and that just couldn't possibly be true. Or perhaps the person whose issue could have been solved if he had only read a piece of paper or a sign.

Thing is, these are really frustrating to the folks in any business who have to deal with each angry, confused, or upset person every single day. Here's a story for you about my own recent experience.

I went to the library on a Friday night for the first time in - oh, probably about six or seven years. It was 730 or so in the evening and the doors were open and the lights were on. I breezed in and dodged people going in and out of gallery there inside the door. I was headed in to pick up a book I had on reserve and hadn't been able to get there all week for.

Turns out the library was closed. The gallery was open for the special event and I wasn't going to be able to pick up my book. Sigh.

I asked the security guard what time the library closed. "Six o'clock," he said. And then he pointed and said, "It's on the door." The condescension was palpable.

"Thanks, I can read," I said. It had been a long day and I'd been trying to get to the library all week long so I was feeling a little squirrelly. "That's why I'm at the library."

I turned and left and deliberately read the sign. The library wasn't scheduled to close until 7. Now I was there after 730 so I would have missed getting in, anyway. I knew I'd be lucky if it was open but since the doors were open and the lights were on and it had been six or seven years since I'd been there on a Friday night... well, I guess I wasn't lucky. If there hadn't been a special event I would have encountered closed doors and that would have been it.

But the guard had gotten his time wrong so I turned around and held up seven fingers. "See? I CAN read."

Now I don't hold it against the guard. He's doing his job, keeping the rabble out of the library after it's closed and I'm glad he's doing that. And to be fair, I should have looked to ensure the library was open or closed so I share some blame. But instead of being condescending and pointing at the sign on the door and getting his closing time wrong, he could have just said "Seven o'clock," and been done with it.

See the question I was asking was important to me, which is why I was asking it. He had forgotten, if he's ever been trained on it, that every question is important to the asker. You may work a particular position every day and the answers are obvious to you but remember the asker.

And this relates to writing in the same way. If you can anticipate the reader's questions you'll be writing a satisfying book. As an author you can't point to a sign and say "There it is. You should have read it for yourself."

Nope. It's your responsibility to write it for them to read. Tell everything they want to know to enjoy the story. Some other time we'll talk about the things you can leave out and tease the reader with.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Submitting the Writing

Submitting the novel is a lot like heading into a hedge
maze and hoping that Jack Nicholson isn't in there with
that axe. Image attribution.
The long process of writing a novel is just about over. I've spent the better part of a year writing, editing, revising, polishing, and generally buffing up to a high shine a work that's just about 110,000 words of story. It's a story I'm in love with, that I think is maybe the best thing I've ever written (certainly the longest) and it's ready to go out into the world. Nearly. This week I'm beginning the process of submitting to publishers.

I have a plan. I've identified three potential houses and I know the routines for getting the book in their sweaty and overburdened little hands. Because I'm going to go the route of the slush pile to start, I'm taking an attitude that 'if it happens it happens, if it doesn't then I'll try something else'. One thing I learned from this summer (when I was sending out short stories) is that when a writer is broadcasting, it's best to keep track of where a story has been and will be going but otherwise to put it out of mind.

Because once it's out there, it's Out There. There's nothing else to do for it until it comes back with a form letter rejection. If the opposite is true and the writer receives an email or phone call accepting the work, that's when I'll do the majority of worrying.

To put it a little more plainly - have you ever been forced to choose between friends? Caught in the middle of a couple divorcing or breaking up when you're genuinely friends with both of them? Or think that you are? What happens to the one that you don't choose? You forget about them. Maybe not completely but definitely out of sight, out of mind. You choose to see the person you liked more, whether it was slightly or not, generally out of a sense of obligation or a sense of selfishness. Perhaps one person can do more for you than the other. Or perhaps you desired that one more and think you have a shot.


The concept if not the intent is the same in this case. The writer has chosen one story over however many others and has worked it until it's ready to go a-courtin'. This story is the one, as I said above, I fell in love with. It's the one that had to be told. Now I'm ready to show it off to people who I think will like it. The story's already met my inner circle of friends - the first readers - and the consensus was that I should keep on with it.

Look, I'm sorry for the dating metaphors but they're really appropriate. I've heard writers call books their children and I understand that, too, but I think this is more personal to me than that. My child I expect to grow up and move out into the world, be his own person and find his own success. My love, my wife, this book, I expect to live with for the rest of my life.

That's what's going to make it hard to send out and forget while it's finding its way.

Or maybe I'm just saying that when the book goes out I can't worry about what will happen. Whatever happens - well, happens. I can't dwell on it or I won't be able to concentrate on the next book which I'm already falling in love with.

So, out of sight, out of mind. I'll let you know what happens, if anything.