Sunday, March 31, 2013

Story The Thirteenth: Turf Wars

Another installment in the sage of Bo. Casual dining, off-site meetings, deadly geese.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Knowing When Enough Is Enough

Status update:  Outlining done, but a bit behind. No worries. Coffee supplies plentiful.

The next Bo story is in the cooker even as I type this. It's about company off-sites, team-building exercises, flair, competition. There's a hint of a Dark Metaplot looming that, if you payed attention to the right spots of the last story, you will see signs of. And you meet Jeff and the rest of Bo's co-workers. This story sees the return of the Mayhew and some extremely vicious killer geese.

Even though I don't have more than a fairly detailed outline at the moment, I expect this one to go very, very quickly once I start writing. Bo stories pretty much tell themselves. Partly because they don't tend to be very complex and partly because I enjoy writing them.

But enough of that. I've been thinking of my first novel a bit lately.

Everyone who writes has a first novel. In fact, there's probably an analog in any creative art. Your first painting. Your first attempt at a new recipe. But I digress. They--and I mean the nebulous they that everyone refers to when they don't want to take the time to dig up sources--always say that you should make an effort to finish your first novel. Pour your heart, your hopes and your dreams into it. Fan it into life, make it everything that expresses who you are as a writer. Go through the good times and slog through the hard times. Push through to the very end and finish it. Take a deep breath and bask in the glow of Being An Author. Then print it out and bury it in the backyard and start writing your second novel.

Because your first novel will probably suck, that's why.

Mine was no exception. I decided to pick up writing again last year because I just needed more in my life. I needed an outlet for my creative bits outside of my work, something more than the daily grind to look forward to. Hell, something even more than the daily grind of my social life, too. Even though I really don't think of hanging out with friends as "work", as such. I just needed something else than the day-to-day.

So, I did the natural thing, the thing that most people do when they decide to Become A Writer. They start a novel. I jumped into it, fanned up an idea I'd gotten some time back when I was running regularly. It's all about crime-fighting kids and mad science. The idea's pretty great and I definitely plan on revisiting it.

However...

I started out relatively fast and...as the weeks wore on...my daily writing rate slowed. I started out (this was before I got into my current groove of fast writing) at around 900 words per hour. Then it was 700. Then I was happy with 600. Finally, I was banging out 300 words per hour.

And then I realized that entire chapters were beginning to pass by without much happening in them. Characters would stand around doing the fictional equivalent of clearing their throats and whistling tunelessly. The parts where things "popped' and action happened became fewer and fewer between.

The book was developing some serious issues.

So, around the one-third mark, I decided to take a break and write a short story instead. Hence, this blog.

Looking back on it, I made the right call. There's something to be said for sticking with a project, seeing it all the way through. Pounding through the hard parts. If everybody stopped when the going got tough, then nothing really worthwhile would ever be done. The Hoover Dam, for example, was probably pretty awful to work on. Boiling hot desert heat, people dropping left and right from heat exhaustion. Lots of heavy things to lift. You get the idea. If the workforce all decided to say "this is for the birds" and took off, we wouldn't have that monument to modern engineering.

But there are also things you work on where you've gone so far afield, so far off track that you have to realize that dumping more effort into it will get you nowhere. Great, you've decided to make the first skyscraper out of snow cones and cotton candy. After floor one, you might realize that your plan has some flaws. Adding more floors is not going to help you at all. You have to regroup and have a good think about why and how you're doing something.

And the sooner you identify projects like that and stop dumping time into them, the better.

My story had issues that were bugging me on a level that I was too involved with to notice. I was too close to the project to see them. There was not enough plot there for an entire novel, for one thing. The plot for the book which I had planned should have been compressed to chapters one to three and then some serious stakes-raising should've happened.

There were some redundant characters. The best character of the book should have been there almost from the beginning. The main character was not driven enough to do what I wanted him to do--he needed more demons.

Mostly, I was getting bored writing it. And if the WRITER is getting bored, how the heck is a READER going to feel about it? Unless said reader has very low standards for entertainment (and you should never write for such an audience deliberately), that's a sign of a problem.

In this case, the best decision I could make was to give up. At least for a while.

Now that I've been spending so much time on shorter format fiction, I think I'm in a place where I could create a much better novel. I'm much better with plotting in advance. I'm more likely to put characters in a bad place for the sake of a good story. And I tend to cram more detail and action into things. I don't really write simply to put words down on paper anymore since I'm more about plot milestones than verbage, per se.

So, yet another example of the Brutal Art Of Useful Failure. Back to the world of Bo.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beer Mortem

Another fun story. In fact, I basically structured the whole thing around the idea of "things I have fun writing about":  lots of banter, lots of jokey exposition.

Sure, it's basically a shaggy dog story, but hopefully it's not an obnoxious one. I don't think I foreshadowed the punch line of "game the judges, not the game" leading directly to the collapse of galactic civilization too heavily.

I had several goals with this one. Namely:

1. Try out different voices. Xen, Rembrandt and "Mary" have very different voices and different roles in the story. It's good practice. This format lets you try out more writing styles than a lot of other ones where you have to limit yourself to a single voice.

2. Try out a different plot structure. Successful, I think. The "three travelers in a bar" format almost tends to drive itself. It can probably be overdone, though, but in this case, when I was trying to make a point, it works well.

3. Try my hand at Douglas Adams-style science fiction. Lots of goofy details, lots of recurring themes, such as the universality of beer. Bizarro high concept over the top sci-fi, like bars on planets circling black holes, stuff like that. The whole theme of three travelers trying to top each others' stories infected my prose and I tried to top the ridiculous details I came up with in previous paragraphs in succeeding ones.

It's definitely a one-off, though. I think if I tried to keep up this level of purple ridiculousness for an entire novel, my brain would probably eat itself.

Anyhow, enough about ridiculous beer stories. This week: another Bo story.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Story The Twelfth: Down And Out In The Jungle Of Death

Beer, sentient beams of radiation, a galaxy of adventure and three very different friends.

This was another fun one. I got to channel my not-so-inner Douglas Adams.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Disconnects And The Future Me

Status update:  Early start. Hit the ground running and fast. Coffee supplies plentiful.

In honor of last weekend's holiday, I'm writing about beer this week, instead of doing another Bo story. Hail randomness. St. Patrick's Day in Michigan is pretty weird. We're a beer state, so we tend to embrace (and sometimes create out of thin f'ing air) drinking holidays. Heck, the launch of Bell's (one of our biggest local microbreweries--they're pretty awesome) summer brew is a local holiday that sees lines around the block at taverns around these parts. It's crazy. We don't even have a big local Irish population; we're just a bunch of alcoholics, apparently.

I'm always a little surprised when I go back and read something I wrote. I tend to go off into a sort of haze and when I come to, there's stuff on the paper. It almost feels like someone else who's much better with words wrote it while I was daydreaming.

I have this weird little neurosis that the me that wrote all my previous stories isn't the me that's writing my current story, like I'll go to bang out words and it just won't be the same: the stuff I like from my last story won't be in the next. The moment will have been lost and there's no getting back to it because I am an entirely different person than what I was last week. Yeah, self-defeating, I know.

Sometimes I'll go back and read something so bad I thought I had a stroke when I wrote it. Then I go over it, pad it out, do a rewrite and then it's not so bad. Might even wind up good, who knows.

Sometimes I bang out the skeleton of an idea, wincing with every word I write. I go back and...it's got promise. It's not good, but it's going in a direction I don't disagree with. I wail away at it for an hour, spit shine it and...I wind up liking it. A lot.

And other times I just splat something out on paper that's awesome right off the bat.

I think it's a basic part of human nature to think that the you of tomorrow morning is an entirely different person than the you of now. If it wasn't, the diet industry wouldn't be such a booming industry and nobody in America would be in credit card debt, I guess.

In writing, it can sometimes lend to a sort of paralysis, a fear that what you put on paper in the future or right now won't be able to stay at a high enough level to match what you've put down on paper in the past. You think the well might be going dry or you're losing your touch. But the future version of you is just as good--if not better--than you were in the past, as long as you keep trying new things and experimenting.

I've said it before, but don't be afraid of sucking. You can't get anywhere in life without a healthy dose of regular failure. And the wins totally make all of that worth it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Cast A Deadly Post Mortem

When I sat down last week to start brainstorming ideas, I decided I was going to write a story about pirates. Oops.

My creative process is pretty random. My resolve lasted about as long as it took me to skim down the Big List Of Ideas and see an entry that simply read "Magic is terribly, terribly uncool and that's why nobody does it."

Fun story to write. This was one of those stories where I actually was pretty excited to get started. I was even a little annoyed at having to hang out with friends or go to a party instead of doing this.

"They Can Only Expel You Once" is the collision of my love of high school crime-fighting stuff like Veronica Mars with my love of gumshoe fiction and modern fantasy. And magic's always kinda fun to write about. It's entertaining to come up with rules and systems and see how they play against each other.

There's some rough bits that probably should be smoothed out in the next draft, particularly in the section on magic items (faerie lords and/or their agents get through the Conduit how, exactly?) but I am otherwise very happy with it and intend to come back later and either continue it or flesh it out into a full length novel. Cam's got some rough times ahead, I'll just say that.

Anyhow.

Holy hell, writing in present tense is tough. I constantly had to go back and change the tense on my verbs. Past tense would sneak in in the most subversive of places. For something that is ever so slightly hard-boiled, however, I think it's important to stay in the now. The present tense lends a sense of immediacy to the proceedings.

I think the hardest part of writing this story, though, was the bit at the end. Not that it was physically slow or difficult, or I had difficulty coming up with awesome stuff to write about, it's just that by the time I got there, I was dragging. I'm all "God, I KNOW how this is going to turn out, I have it outlined and everything and it can only really develop in one way from here. Can't I just hit fast forward?"

This is actually why I spend a lot of time making sure each section of a story is outlined fully before I start.

The more detailed it is about where the story's going next, what each section should accomplish, the less I have to worry about broad things like plot and structure. When I don't have to worry about all that--in addition to description, characterization and action--I write a lot faster. Think three or four times faster or even more. It's literally the difference between 300 or 400 words per hour and 1500 to 2000 words per hour.

My outlines tend to be pretty informal. I get very specific about things that are boring to write, and I am equally vague about the fun stuff, because surprising myself with details is half the fun.

Sometimes I'll finish a section, then tweak the outline two or three sections ahead, or go back and rewrite a bit of an earlier section to make the current work better. Sometimes I won't even do anything on a given day but work on my outline.

Even using the word outline is kind of a misnomer, because it usually looks like something like this:

introduce hero
what is a seventh son/etc?
in the library, working on paper
Claire
cheerleaders aren't cool
something magical happens here
Madison and her crew walk in

And so on. Not exactly like those monstrosities you'd have to work through back in high school English, right?

There's this common perception that working off an outline kills creativity or locks you into a rut. I find that is about as far from the truth as you can get. It's an excellent tool to give you the two miles up view of the story. You don't get bogged down as much in details and once you do zoom in and start expanding your story from those bones, you don't waste time wandering about the wilderness, hacking out a path through the shrubbery.

I tend to write faster, and better. It minimizes the stuff that bores me and maximizes the fun stuff. I have more time to go off on fun tangents and develope setting and character, tell jokes and whatnot. I don't have to waste precious time splitting my attention between broad level matters and detail.

Even when I'm writing in present freaking tense.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Story The Eleventh: They Can Only Expel You Once

Demons, magic, faeries, death, high school and cheerleaders. Yes, the title is a Dashiell Hammett reference. This one was a lot of fun to write.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Making Time

Status update: barely begun due to critical lack of free time. Lots of preparation, though, so this story should be fast. It also looks like it's going to be fun as hell to write, so I'm kinda chaffing at the bit. Caffeine supplies still plentiful and tasty.

One of the main objections that people often give to starting any habit that will require more than an hour or two of effort per month is that they lack time for it. Sometimes they'll even go out of their way to inform you of this fact. You tell them you're writing or you've taken up jogging or knitting and you'll get what's evidently a carefully rehearsed spiel about how their schedule is packed front to back from dawn to dusk, how they're already running themselves ragged. But they'd love to do it.

I call shenanigans on that. While, yes, there are days where you will get up and then be on the go from six to midnight, there's always room for something, if you make that something a priority. For example, between various social and work commitments, I usually have evenings spoken for. If I'm not very careful, I can go weeks on end without having an evening to myself. I have to put my foot down and reserve Wednesdays. In fact, I just flat out tell friends not to call or text me on Wednesday evenings because that evening is "Mike Time."

I also get up a couple hours before work every day and do plot work and revisions. The early morning hours are a nice quiet time when I can concentrate and it's kind of nice to roll into work with a few cups of coffee in me, already awake.

I eke out extra time by chiseling hours out of the weekend: mornings and occasionally afternoons. Sometimes I burn off personal time from work and spend that time catching up on reading and writing.

The point is, there are always bits and pieces of your schedule you can salvage to get something done if you keep your eyes open. A lot of times people get stuck in a routine. The natural human tendency is to get into comfortable ruts. You don't do it consciously, but your schedule is guaranteed to have a ton of "filler" in it. You get home, you eat supper, then you watch some TV. Before you know it, it's time to go to bed. Is that TV doing anything for you? Not really. You don't even interact with your friends and family much while watching it. Does it matter, really, if you chip an hour away from that and go for a walk instead? Nope. You probably wouldn't even miss it. I guarantee you 100% that one month from now you'd remember that walk or that chapter you wrote much more than the television show you would've watched instead.

There are tons of these little time traps hidden in your routine if you know how to look for them. Activities that only take up time while only delivering a very small pay-off of fun (and/or productivity). For me, it was surfing the internet and alcohol. I could probably spend hours not doing much of anything with either of those (hellooooo Facebook). And even a single beer seems to throw a monkey wrench into my evening. So I try to minimize them in favor of writing (or reading) instead. I'm happier in the long run when I have something concrete to show for my free time.

You would think that since there are only 168 hours per week that there's a limit to what you can accomplish, and yes, there definitely is, but that limit is much higher than what most people would think. You just have to prioritize. If you think you don't have enough time to do something cool, and it's something you really want to do, then there are always ways to make it happen.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday Morning Tuxedo Post Mortem

In an early version of this story, the outsider simply beat up the man in the tuxedo and stole his shoes. I think I like this version better even though I wouldn't blame him for doing it.

This was pretty cool to write. It was short enough I had time to go back and layer in extra detail, reinforce some of the themes and imagery. The patter of the tuxedo man actually took a few passes to get right. I had a list of memes and cliches at the end that I spent some time brainstorming that I would cherry pick as he spoke. Writing it was great fun--sort of a vaguely malevolent surreal used car salesman with a strong whiff of robot and angler fish.

It was so short that I felt like I cheated on this one, even though it's actually what most people consider to be short story length. And because of that it's probably the most publishable of the stories I've written, primarily on the basis of length alone. Still, it felt pretty weird to have a lot of free time that week, like I was on vacation.

Most of the things I've written this year I only have enough time to do major first draft revisions: make sure it gets from point A to point B without going way off course or getting dull. Edit out the biggest howlers, the worst spelling errors and so on. My long term plan is to pick the best stories of the year when I get done and then go back and revise the hell out of them.

So, who knows. I think I'm going to do another one-off story this week, hopefully another short-ish one, but you never know. If I have an idea for a story, I'm not going to short it--if it's a longer one, it's a longer one. If it's short, it's short. After this week's story, I'm probably going to do another Bob story. It's about time I got back to him.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Story The Tenth: In The Cave Of The Ancients

This week's installment--short but sweet. Hit the link below for post-apocalyptic marauders, tuxedos and gears.

Redacted. :-)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Parkinson's Law

Status update: looks to be another short story and I'm about a quarter of the way done. Caffeine supplies plentiful and tasty.

I'm a big fan of procrastination.

It's not only my hobby--you could think of it as one of my key strengths. If I were a superhero, I'd probably have a big letter P on my chest and would specialize in last minute saves. The first 31 pages of my comic book would be me taking naps and looking at pictures of cats on the Internet. It would probably sell poorly.

Over the years, I've just had to accept that I'm not one of those smug bastards who'll start working on a homework assignment two months in advance. Usually I'm banging away at it at the very last minute, hopped up to my eyebrows on caffeine. Given a hard deadline, you can generally calculate where I'm at by figuring out my hourly work rate and then subtracting the number of hours that I could reasonably be considered to be awake and on task between now and said deadline. Yeah, I suck.

So, I've had to think around it. I set milestones and then make myself accountable for them. Have a plot sketched out before Tuesday night. Be at least a few pages in by Thursday morning. Be done with Act 2 by Saturday afternoon.

I'm usually in a haze of panic as I struggle to meet these deadlines, the level of panic being suffered in direct proportion to the importance of said deadline.

And, in my opinion, this is a good thing. Some of my best work gets done when I'm under pressure because I don't have the luxury to deal with such illusions as writer's block. I find myself reaching for solutions, wracking my brains for nonlinear workarounds. And when I hit the somewhat drab parts of a project that every project has to have, I admit to myself that I have to just pound through it to a more interesting part. If I  didn't have that looming tombstone of a deadline coming up fast, I'd be tempted to gather wool, maybe rethink my approach. I'd start over again with a different, more "fresh" viewpoint and then never get anything done. And then I finish it, look over it all and a lot of it's actually pretty good, for the most part.

Tim Ferriss, author of the pretty-amusing-and-useful-but-not-nearly-as-useful-as-people-say book, "The Four Hour Workweek", misquotes it as Parkinson's Law and uses it as a productivity tool. This is actually a very, very powerful idea. Give yourself a hard deadline and then take the rest of that time off to do more fun things. When you're under pressure to perform, it narrows your focus. A narrow focus means you get more stuff done in a unit of time. You've deliberately backed yourself into a corner and you're using your lizard-brain fight-or-flight instincts to increase your output.

Some people don't work better under those conditions (probably the aforementioned smug bastards), but it works for me. I've just had to outwit myself. I break the work up into more manageable chunks. Instead of one ghastly/awful huge deadline where I do EVERYTHING at the last minute, I have a cluster of subdeadlines that force me to break up projects into little, more easily achieved bits.

Incidentally, Parkinson's Law is actually more about the bureaucratic tendency to expand to achieve a maximal state of inefficiency. It gets misquoted and appropriated a lot by writers/humorists. It's the sort of thing that drives pedants insane, which I approve of thoroughly.

Monday, March 4, 2013

On Words And Voice

Yet another long story. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.

It took a few pages to fall into place, pages during which time I wasn't entirely sure about how the dynamics of the story would work out or what kind of voice to go with for Samuel and Archie. Fortunately, I pounded through those difficulties at some point on Thursday night and got the kinks figured out.

15,000 words is very long for a short story. Many publishers won't even take shorts longer than 6,000. It works out to roughly 40 pages given the usual average of around 350 words per page, so yeah, that's a lot.

But once I get the idea in my head for a story and it's fleshed out, I can't write them shorter. Stories sometimes determine their own length, shorting them would feel wrong, somehow. Once you get those ideas in your head, those particular characters, you have to let them run free and breathe, spread their wings a little. Or in this case, arm-wrestle a drunk Martian and trash a brothel.

I'll probably be revisiting this one over the year. They're a fun duo to write. I based it roughly on the Jeeves and Wooster formula, replacing Wooster with a somewhat dimwitted but imaginative action hero and then turned them loose. The voice I used was very similar to the one I use for the Bob stories, except I changed the focus somewhat. The conceit of the Bob stories is that he's telling them to his new assistant/eventual replacement. He spends a lot of time foreshadowing things he has done during his career. I use those bits to brainstorm ideas for further Bob stories. It's pretty shameless, actually.

With Samuel, the implications are that he's relating the story immediately after it happens, once things settle down. His bits where he goes off trail and talks about his adventures are of things he's already done. His future's pretty much wide open. The parts where he goes off track and talks about previous adventures won't turn into stories, per se, but will probably come into play as story seeds where his past comes back to haunt him. For example, the Califa of Titan is probably still unhappy with him...

If anything, the parts that I use to foreshadow new stories with Samuel are the bits where he looks over the edge of the cliff and sees something dangerous to explore or contemplates a heinously misguided and unwise course of action. He's very much like a toddler who just has to touch the burner to see if it's really as hot as everyone says it is.

I haven't done the math but I suspect I'm pushing the 100k word mark for this year. That's quite a milestone for what amounts to a drunken dare to myself that I took up during a moment of depression.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Story The Ninth: S. M. Wakeman And Company

I continue to shatter records in story length. Eventually I will write short stories that surpass a million words each.

As with my previous longer stories, there's a direct correlation with how much fun I had writing this and its length. I had a blast, from beginning to end. It's all about flying locomotives, Mars, robot detectives and drunkenness.

As with Argyle, I've had to split it into two parts as it's roughly 15k words. Yes, it's a long one.

Redacted. :-)