Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sketches

I've been spending the entire week outlining.

Good lord, it's hard work. And it's the most frustrating variety of it, too, where you can only do about twenty minutes of useful work at a time before needing a break. Spend too much time on outlining, then you're over-preparing. Spend too little time and then there's a gap in the skeleton of your story.

I take twenty minutes, then take a break. I do another twenty, then take another break.

It's frustrating, yes, but key.

I'm trying to keep this story as tight as possible and, unfortunately, that means an outline. A very firmly defined one, at at that.

There's always a bit of tight-rope walking involved with doing one. I make it too detailed, I'm sick of the story before I even get started. I sit down feeling I've already eaten that meal. If I begin with an outline that's too poorly defined, then I'm pantsing, and I don't generally do so well with that, at least over the long term.

The difference between this outline and any of the others I've done before is that it's becoming very end-heavy. I have a direction I want the book to go and I need to set it up properly. Beginnings are easy for me. I can write the first third of any book you care to name, almost in one sitting. Endings? Endings aren't that bad, either. It's the middle third that always kills me.

This time around, I'm spending a lot of time on the end before I get there, so I don't spend the middle third lost in the woods.

Outlines are essential to working on broad story ideas. They're pretty much the only way I can keep an entire story in my head at once.

Short stories, for example, are easy to keep track of. You can read one in a single sitting. Spread the pages out all around you, even with annotations. You can see a short story all at once. A book? Especially a genre one with tons of strange details?

Good luck.

An outline is a map. It omits all the details you don't really need to know at the moment. All the strange close-up stuff goes away. It abstracts everything down to just the stuff you need to think about at that moment, summarizing everything down to a level you can hold at arm's length, give a few shakes to and then see whether or not the broad structure works.

People tend to think of them as these strictly formal constructions like they learned in high school: section headers with capital letters, with subheaders labelled with upper case Roman numerals, everything nested neatly in order.

Nope. At least they don't have to.

Outlines are for your benefit. Do them however the hell you want. I've done outlines for stories and articles in crayon on sheets of printer paper, where I expressed all the concepts with stick figures and cartoon cats. I've had two separate but equally-important outlines for the same story, but focusing on different details. And followed them both while writing.

Sometimes if I get stuck at a certain point, I'll bust out a notebook and just doodle where the story's going until everything makes sense again.

It's not like you're publishing that bastard. Get as sloppy and weird as you need to.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Decisions

...and I've decided on a motive: hybrid!

Specifically, I wrote three motives for the murder: sort of an intellectual one, which had to do with family history and such, another motive rising from flat-out weasel-ish greed, and the last one, misguided altruism.

And they all work, kinda. Greed the most of all, which is why I'm going with that for the primary motive.

Thing is, people rarely do things--particularly bad things--for just one reason. Sure, there's the gut motivation, the one that kicks you into action. The reason you got out of bed that morning to do that awful thing in the first place, the reason that overcame your moment of inertia. Anger, greed, lust, all the big hitters of villainy, yes. There's that.

Then there's what you've been telling yourself ever since you did it. People tell themselves all sorts of stories to justify their own actions. These are the stories you make up so you can sleep at night, hopefully so that one shitty thing you did that you can't stop thinking about doesn't seem quite so awful. That's important to know, too. This is also the story you might give to a friend or a reporter when explaining your deeds. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. This is more than an alibi because you're not, specifically, denying the crime. You're recontextualizing it so that you can be the hero of your story.

And then there's the story you tell close friends or business partners. It's usually somewhere between the first two on the scale of awfulness. It's within sight of the black heart, but not quite there yet.

Since I can't really talk about how the book's going to wind up--for two good reasons: a) I haven't written it yet and b) I don't really want to have the final chapter show up on a basic Google search--I'll go with a real life example.

I have a half-cousin who's serving a life sentence for slitting a cab driver's throat over $16. The more I read about it--the victim, the circumstances, what my cousin's life must have been like to lead him to do such a thing--the worse I feel. It's truly awful on many levels, just an epic multilayered shit sandwich which tastes worse the more you bite.

That particular branch of the family is, to put it charitably, the black sheep of our family tree. We've mostly cut them out of the loop, on the general theory that the less toxic the people you hang out with, the better your life will be. Objectively speaking, it was probably the best decision we've made as a family over the years.

Almost that entire branch of the family has spent time in jail. Two of them are serving life sentences; the others have been in and out of prison their entire lives. They tend to gravitate towards unglamorous crime: it's not uncommon for people from that branch of my family to get fired from, say, Shopko, for shoplifting from their own employers. They'd fit in well on the set of Justified.

The kid who wound up in jail was so out of control they'd kicked him out on the streets while he was still in his late teens. He's probably the most common type of career criminal: zero impulse control, chip on his shoulder. He came from a fairly broken household and probably had some basic learning disabilities which were never addressed properly thrown into the mix. But most people would simply call him stupid. One of his previous arrests, for example, was for knocking over a food truck with the help of his girlfriend. The food truck was parked in front of a police station.

He dropped off the family radar for a few years and it came to light that he'd become homeless. Someone like him, with his history, can't really hold down a job. He's not terribly employable, he's got a short fuse, and if he does get employed that itch he's had in his head since he was a kid wouldn't let him hold it for very long. I'm guessing he supplemented his income with petty theft and muggings, maybe drugs and other minor crime, but I don't really know for sure. It's reasonable, though.

Late one night in some state out west, he and two of his friends called a cab. The cab driver, a Vietnam veteran in his late fifties with a wife and several kids, answered the call. There was a scuffle, words were probably exchanged, and the cab driver was killed.

I doubt my cousin started out that evening planning to murder anyone. He'd been homeless for some time. He'd burnt every bridge he'd ever had access to. I'm guessing plan A was to get enough cash to pay for food and maybe a cheap hotel room somewhere to get some real sleep, get clean maybe, maybe even buy some booze or drugs. When you're that low on the Maslow pyramid of needs, your goals tend to be pretty basic.

At its core, his primary motive was mostly desperation. He needed money to live and he was going to get some. When the cab driver resisted or perhaps protested that he didn't carry much on him, he panicked, probably with the help of his friends who were goading him and each other on. There was probably a point early on when they could have talked each other out of it, but the tipping point was reached and someone, probably my cousin, decided to finish it.

Having people with you in such a situation is hardly ever helpful. Someone panics, the rest go as well. People start stupid and get stupider with numbers.

One of the depressing things about contrasting crime fiction with reality is that real motives for such things tend to be squalid and sordid, even more so than the norm for, say, noir. No matter what the criminal tells himself, the real motive is usually greed, desperation, fear or anger, mixed with a good dose of panic and sociopathy.

The story he most likely tells other people is the timeless narrative that life is a hard row and mistakes were made. I don't plan to talk to him any time soon, but I'm going to say that he'd probably tell you that one of his friends panicked, killed the cab driver and he took the blame for it. He's going to tell you how hard life is on the streets and you have to make hard decisions sometimes.

One of the many strange things about modern life in prison is that the prison system has its own version of Facebook. Prisoners have a profile page, you can message them, they post selfies, or pictures of their own artwork, everything anybody does on real social media they can do there, except with worse haircuts. It's less cool than Facebook, if that's believable: more like a version of Myspace circa 2005, preserved like a Jurassic mosquito in amber.

On his page he talks about how he gives great advice because he's screwed up his own life in every way imaginable. He's had plenty of time to reflect and to find God. There's nothing about what landed him in jail this time, but there are a ton of generic platitudes and quotes from the Bible.

If you were closer friends, he might tell you a more detailed version. Maybe they figured there was money in that cab. Maybe alcohol was a factor. One of them made a joke about how it was like ordering a pizza. You'd make the phone call and your next paycheck would show up. I'm guessing that detailed version wouldn't be as noble as the public story, but would be less degrading to tell than the real story, the one that hurts to think about at night.

It would make the worst detective story in the history of mankind. Given what I know about my cousin's modus operandi, he probably did it in front of a local gun shop during a police convention in broad daylight, with loudspeakers blaring "A CRIME IS IN PROGRESS."

But it does illustrate something that a lot of writers tend to forget, that motivation is only a small part of what makes a villain tick. There's also background and history and accidents that complicate things which the investigator must uncover. If they killed Mrs. Renfro, then why did they also steal the garbage can and the cat? Those things are all part of the unraveling process.

Totals:  531, 512, 557, 1141, 580, 547, and 1403.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mysteries

And I'm back after a week in the Upper Peninsula, experiencing fall colors, decompressing and hanging out with the folks. I've had adventures, seen things that would make a billy goat puke, star ships exploding off the Belt of Orion, etc. Same old, same old. Lots of driving around, saw a littoral attack ship get launched in Menominee, ate a lot of good food, experienced nature, transcended my mortal frame and became a pure elemental being of thought and power. Well, some of that list, at least.

I've chosen the Spirals and Triangles story to blow up into a book. Entirely new plot, natch.

The first thing I did when I chose it was to sit down and reread S&T. Holy crap, I'd forgotten how fun that story was. It's actually rather intimidating to think about: can I do that for an ENTIRE BOOK? I mean, holding that voice and pace, keeping the characters awesome for a couple hundred pages. Keeping all the details of the setting straight (it's set in my Down & Out universe, after all, which is full of Weird Shit). Jesus.

I tend to think of things I've previously written as being written by a completely different person, an entirely different version of me which no longer exists. When I read something I've written before, I get psyched out by it pretty easily, particularly when I'm staring at a blank sheet of paper that doesn't even have a title yet and only the barest sketches of a plot.

I have queasy visions of science fiction writers who let their series go to seed, turning them into pale mockeries of the first book. I don't want to do that. If I took the time to make an interesting character, I don't want to betray them with crap writing.

I forget that I've always felt this way reading old stuff. Instead, it feels like I'm reading a story from someone who writes way better than I do, in the same field that I do, who's competing with me. Selective amnesia. Ugh, brains are a wonderful thing, folks.

In this case, the story works because it strikes a balance between comedy and world-weariness. There's a sort of off-kilter world out there tempered by the relationship between the Llerg and his adopted niece, Neah, which works really well, I think. It's also pretty funny in parts. And I've set myself the task of doing this for at least 60,000 words. Good lord, what did I talk myself into doing?

So I'm putting a hell of a lot work into figuring out the plot in advance. I want to make sure it hangs together well, there aren't any dead chapters, everything's paced smoothly and it all makes sense. I figure it's going to be another few days before I even consider actually starting the first chapter.

Both luckily and unluckily, it's a detective story.

Detective stories follow a pretty well-defined structure and formula. This makes them both easier and harder to write.

When I write them, I usually go about it a lot more backwards than I do more traditional stories.

Start with the goriest, most inexplicable killing you can think of. Something that would have the cops arriving on scene hurl immediately. I mean, yeah, you can make a crime novel out of accounting fraud, but that doesn't sell newspapers, kids.

Once you have that, skip to the end of the story. Sketch out the big reveal when the main character figures it all out. Figure out the prime motive, the means, who did it. All the sordid details, the why's and the hows. Write it up, if you have to, like you would the Wikipedia entry on that character detailing their life. Then work backwards from there.

Act I, II, III, etc. The big twists and turns, the red herrings. The other suspects who may or may not be involved. They all have their own agendas and alibis, the reason why your main character would finger them and also, eventually, absolve them. Figure out which one's going to go missing or die during the investigation. Maybe add another who shows up out of the blue a few chapters in, throwing the investigation out of whack.

This isn't a genre that thrives heavily on pantsing, unless you're a natural genius at figuring out crimes. I'm not. Hell, Agatha Christie, while fun to read (Poirot is the man!), gives me a throbbing headache. I don't think I've ever figured out a detective story before the end. Not even once. I'm an idiot.

Luckily, you can be an idiot as an author--you know all the answers, after all.

Also comforting is that, as a science fiction author, you get an automatic pass. The pure detective fiction readership is generally pretty unforgiving: they're better read than you, they're smarter than you and they're generally going to be at least two chapters ahead of you at all times. So you have to be pretty careful. They'll pick up on all the lazy thinking and cliches and run you through the wash for it.

Genre detective fiction? Not so much. In a world where octopi live in fifteen dimensions and lawnmowers are powered by dying stars, the reader will often not rake you over the coals if you skip a step or two while grinding through some deductive reasoning. They might not even notice that you fucked up how fingerprinting works because they're too busy thinking about robots. It's cool that way. It's not an unlimited pass, but you get a bit of wiggle room.

So I've been grinding through that. Twelve chapters, sixty thousand words. During this week, I'm not only outlining, I'm also coming up with three or four different motives for the bad guy to have. At the end, I'll pick the most interesting one and structure the novel about that.

The first motive I came up with was a bit too intellectual. The next write-up is going to be slimy and more greedy. I might go with a cynical take on altruism gone wrong. Or have a bit of fun with some cliches. Who knows.

This comes down to a topic I've touched on before a few times. Namely, that you should never immediately go with the first idea you have. The first idea is usually either crap or at the very least, monumentally uninspired. Maybe it has an interesting seed, but that's all it usually has. Interrogate your ideas like you would interrogate a particularly sleazy crime suspect. Prod them, slap them around, give them the fifth degree.

This is going to be pretty fun. Also, I think it will go a lot faster. With only twelve chapters I have a lot less room to work with. I also tend to do a lot better when writing under tight restrictions.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Uncloned

But enough about beards.

Finished up the Clone story. It took quite a bit longer than I thought it would. On the face of it, it's a dreadfully simple story. Pretty much goes from point A to point B with lots of action in between, barely any characterization, some fun set pieces and then the obligatory cliffhanger ending. Not much meat there, sadly.

But stories tend to have an innate length. When you conceive of one, you can't just take a thousand word story and turn it into ten thousand. It's also very hard to take a four thousand word story and make it a piece of flash fiction. At least that's my difficulty: once I start a story, it becomes the length that it becomes.

This was a six-er, or thereabouts. When I picked it back up, I was only one or two thousand words in, so that's a fair amount of verbiage to get through in a week, at least so long as you don't want to turn into a crazy mumbling hermit. I'd naively forgotten that a story determines  its own length. All you can do is hang on for the ride.

The biggest problem I had with the thing was the verb tenses. You'd think I'd have a handle on such things by now, but I'd just spent over a year writing present tense. The Clone stories are in past tense because the narrator is telling a story to someone else, years after the fact. I constantly had to go back and clean out landmines, rewrite paragraphs and so on.

This is exactly one of the silly things that you have to deal with that you never see in the media. You'd never hear about, say, Faulkner, complaining about paragraph breaks or trying to figure out why the hell his typewriter keeps screwing up the margins.

In the media, writers are all about finding their internal inspiration, or having to sit on a beach somewhere, dipping cake in tea and letting their memories flood back. The popular media gets a lot wrong about the writing process, I'm discovering. Barely enough at all about beards either, I'm afraid.

Taking another week off from the writing. Heading up into the howling wilderness of the Upper Peninsula to, hopefully, see some fall colors, visit the parents, wander around a bit, decompress even more and so on and so forth. I should be back early next week and I'll most likely start writing the next book, then. Hopefully I'll even make up my mind which one I want to do by then.

Whichever I choose, I think it's going to go a lot quicker. I have a better grasp of what the traps are, what to look out for ahead of time in terms of outlining and plotting, and being extremely vigilant about plot cohesiveness and momentum.

One thing I know, for example, is to shoot low on the word count because I'm completely and utterly incapable of keeping to a word limit. I aim for 80, I hit 120 instead. So, I'm aiming for 60, on the general theory I'll overshoot to around 80. Let's see how that goes.

Totals: 760, 1010, 637, 593, 1227, 960, and 531.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Beardly Pause And Clonage

Beards are a perfect allegory for life.

They go through phases, much like the Sphinx's riddle about mankind ("What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?").

A beard starts out manly and rugged when it's still early enough you can convince everyone it's five o'clock shadow. You look like Indiana Jones, or maybe Crockett from Miami Vice. Your stubble says "I shave, but I haven't recently since I've been too busy going out, fist-fighting nazis and punching drug dealers in the damn face. I've got too many things to do right now to deal with grooming. But I'll get back to it." It's cool. Everybody respects a good five o'clock shadow.

During the final phase of the life of the beard, it is majestic and untamed. Your beardly beardiness is like something elemental, like a hairy man-beast who clambered down from the howling wilderness of the Canadian Yukon to plant its flag in your motherfucking territory. It makes you more than a man, much like Batman's mask.

Everybody respects a good beard. Except for THOSE people. Don't be one of THOSE people.

And then there's the in-between phase.

Not enough beard to be a beard. Too gnarly to be a five o'clock shadow.

You spend several weeks looking like a crazy homeless person. Every person of the female variety you associate with (and some of the dudes) gets a little twitch in their right eye-lid looking at you, because every instinct down to the fibrous core of their being is telling them to wrestle you down and abort the patchy abomination that's now growing in on your face. Give it a mercy killing. Stop it before it destroys us all.

Your neo-beard makes you, in the immortal words of Garfield, look like you ate a box of Milk Duds and then kissed a cat.

Even when you trim it, keep it as neat as possible, you feel like you'd be more at home, visually, hanging out around a trash can fire and maybe sucking down Arrow vodka straight from the bottle.

In other words, I temporarily gave up. I have something this afternoon that I really need to not look like a weirdo at, so I had to shave it off. I might go back to growing it afterwards, though. Hopefully, if it DOES come in, it'll be done by the time I need to start looking like I give a hoot about personal hygiene again.

And lo, the cherubs of St. Bernie, patron saint of beards, wept and gnashed their teeth. Or perhaps plucked at their beards. I will have to commit penitence: say "hail Bernie" a hundred times over a rosary or something.

Kind of sad, really. It was coming in strong enough that I could stroke it when I pondered something perplexing. But not strong enough that trimming it made it looked like I actually engaged in grooming activity of some sort.

I'm STILL working on that Clone story. Hopefully, I'm at the climax. Bo just keeps having things to tell me, though. He's like a house guest which refuses to leave, even though it's well past midnight and you've been theatrically yawning for a half hour. He's a welcome one, though, so you don't want to just physically push him out the door. Instead you're just prompting him with things like "Oh, really?" and "That's great, man." All hoping he gets to the point, picks up his hat, nods politely and steps out for the night.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Beardly Activity

I've been thinking about buying a jean jacket lately.

The problem is I've also decided, for the first time ever, to see if I can grow a beard. I've always told people that I'm genetically incapable of growing significant facial hair, in much the same way that trees are genetically incapable of growing legs and becoming champion breakdancers, but in all honesty, I've never tried.

So I'm going to attempt to get all beardy. If the geometry of my facial hair approximates my dad's, this will be a futile and hilarious failure. His beard always comes in patchy and ragged, the sort of beard that other beards assign to a leper colony so they don't have to look at it.

Other members of the extended family have glorious beards and I hope mine takes after them. Again, no idea what my face will turn into. I may grow tentacles on my chin, which I will use to devour the unfaithful as the stars align and Elder Gods walk the Earth again. Who knows what blasphemous secrets my attempt at growing facial hair will reveal?

But the beard does make other fashion choices problematic. I've always had a love for three unfortunate fashion items. You can tell I'm a writer because if I'm going to make a list, I'm going to put three things in it, no more, no less. But in this case, the number of items is genuine and not at all related to mild writerly-OCD:

1. The aforementioned jean jacket. Without the beard, people will assume I have poor taste or that I'm from Canada. With the beard? Hipster. I'll probably have to wander around, telling people about my vinyl collection and how my favorite band--who you've never heard of--only releases on cassette these days.

2. Flannel. I love flannel. It's been long enough I can wear it now without being accused of being a grunge rocker but wearing flannel when you have a beard? Suddenly you're a lumberjack.

3. Trench coats. There's no way to defend these things, beard or non-beard. If you have a beard and you wear a trench coat, you'll look like the sort of guy who should also be wearing a fedora and larping Vampire: the Masquerade. But they're really practical and completely awesome in winter. They let you sit down in your car without getting your butt wet from any snow that's slipped in.

This is what it must be like to grow old.

I can see the path before me and it is greased with compromises.

I concede on the beard.

Then I decide that I don't care what people think about my denim jacket.

And then I decide to only wear really comfortable pants.

Next thing I know, I'm that old dude wearing suspenders and a bow tie, because gosh darn it, bow ties were really great back when Boxcar Willie was the up-and-coming feller on the honky-tonk circuit.

Actually, that sounds pretty awesome.

Been cranking out that Clone story, at a pretty solid clip. About 800 words per day. I figure I'm about halfway done. Then, the next book.

Totals: 527, 664, 849, 859, 709, 795 and 531.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Attachments

It's strange how attached you get to fictional characters you've created.

Ever since I stranded Bo in the depths of the sewers beneath TacoPlace, I've felt strangely guilty, like I'd left the baby sitting on top of the car before driving off.

I mean, yes, no measurable time passes in a fictional world which I create, but it galls me to leave a story half-done.

Back when I was younger, I had a real problem with starting and not finishing writing projects. I'd write the first couple pages of a story and then abandon it. Or I'd write the middle scene of an action sequence, or I'd build up the background to a novel and then I would just leave it hanging there. Or--and this is where I put my nerd hat on for realz--I'd start writing a role playing game, usually some kind of fantasy heartbreaker  (and one or two science fiction heartbreakers), get the statistics down, get some interesting systems in place, a skill or a class list, daydream for a while about how awesome it would be to get this all done...and then I'd move on to the next shiny.

I think I wrote a thousand imaginary books and ten thousand potential stories, but never finished any.

Writing has a bit of ebb and flow to it. There's a honeymoon period which disappears fast when it turns into real work. Then it gets better. Then it gets worse. But if you make a habit of pushing through to the last hard part, awesome things happen.

Heinlein once said that the first rule of writing was to write every day. The second rule was to finish what you write. I forget what any of the later rules were. Probably "don't forget the later rules."

But finishing what you write is very important. More important than writing every day, I think. Writing every day keeps your pen sharp. Finishing what you write is what makes you a writer.

Like I said, I never really completed projects when I was younger.

The turning point for me happened about five or six years ago. Maybe longer than that. I don't really want to look up the exact number because it feels like yesterday and finding out the exact timeline might be kind of depressing, like doing the math at the end of a bag of Oreos and realizing you've just eaten the equivalent of three or four happy meals and you're still hungry.

Like I implied before, I've had a life-long fascination for RPG's. The combination of game and simulation, the interplay of make-believe and hard rules, social elements colliding with math is a heady one for me. I started out playing D&D, flirted with HERO and Shadowrun, the old Whitewolf Storyteller games, and others. Like a lot of gamers, I made my own homebrew material and game systems.

I abandoned a lot of projects. Fantasy games about space pirates, games which were completely indistinguishable from AD&D except this one gets parrying and shield use right, man, games about mutants and psychic abilities, games where you play gods and have to acquire followers. Billions of permutations. And I abandoned almost all of them.

For a while, Dungeon magazine had this feature where every issue they'd feature a mini-game based on Wizards of the Coast's new d20 system. The mini-games were great. Instead of just bashing orcs and dwarves and playing in a fakey version of Tolkien's universe, there'd be games where you could play mutants scavenging through postapocalyptia, you could be a wanna-be John Carter fighting his way through the jungles of Jupiter. Another dealt with giant anime robots and who wouldn't want to play that? Trippy stuff, and all done in twenty pages each.

I got the itch one day, probably in early spring. Read one of them and thought "Hey, I could do that." Twenty pages wasn't much.

So I made a little Star Trek game for the d20 Modern system. And I decided I was actually going to finish the damn thing. And I did. I outlined every thing a Star Trek game should have. Figured out the tone I wanted to hit and plowed through it, come hell or high water, no matter what my mood that day was. I finished it.

Eventually, it went through several iterations, acquired a different game system, and became "Where No Man Has Gone Before 2." For a silly homebrew game, it's been weirdly successful. Not monetarily or anything like that, but it's nice knowing that a ton of people have played it and had fun. I once read a play report of some cool German guys getting together in a pub and playing it over beer. A very nice Canadian guy made miniatures and other cool art for it. And so on.

Once you finish one big thing like that, others become easier. You know you can do it and, even more so, you know it's worthwhile.

So now I'm finishing up that clone story because leaving it at a cliffhanger has been bugging me. Don't worry, Bo, I'll get you out of that awful place yet.