Writing

Thoughts on the craft, and stupidity and frustration of writing.

The Plot Thickens (if you add some flour)

What do you need to create a plot? That’s the big question isn’t it? Well, here’s your answer: stuff. You need stuff. That was simple. End of blog. You can go about your business now. Wait wait wait… no. That’s cheating. Sorry. Okay. Alright. Someone on the facebook page just said it’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Okay. I can agree with that. It’s got a good beat. You can at least shuffle like an injured zombie to it. But is that enough?

I have decreed that it is Plot week on the Nanowrimo group page. Not the official page, mind you. The big unofficial one. The facebook one. So this is mostly for those folks, should they find their way here. If you’re not from the group, though, that’s okay too. Hope you enjoy it. It’s bound to be a rambling incoherent mess.

Okay. Just to start with, i remember when i was a young lad my mom got me a book for my birthday. Not exactly a unique occurrence. But this one was really good. It was The Fiction Writers Handbook, by Hallie and Whit Burnett. I was…. probably 12. It had a section on plot and it started thusly: The king dies. Then the queen dies. Now, according to Hallie and Whit, this right here is the essence of plot. This happened, then that happened. Is the happening the result of the first thing happening? Could be. But either way, everything between those two happenings (whatever you figure out) is your plot.

So you can say Goal, Motivation, Conflict and those certainly help. But, to me, that’s more of the order of character. Your character needs the goal, the motivation, the conflict. The Plot is the media in which those ingredients thicken and become a stew. I mean…. what’s my goal? To not die a horrible flaming death at the hands of the big damned dragon. What’s my motivation? Not dying is pretty good. What’s the conflict? Those big nasty teeth and, you know, the gouts of flame that are scorching my eyebrows off. Yeah. That’s good. But how the hell did i get into the damned dragons lair anyway? What am i doing here? That’s your plot.

Plot is simple. Really. It’s the barest of all possible bones in a story. It’s like a femur or something. And all plots are fairly alike… Mystery: Find the how and the who and bring them to justice. Fantasy: Recover the MacGuffin for the good guys. Sci Fi…. could be anything. Romance: Girl and guy hook up – happily ever after or no? Lit fic: Discover the X within yourself (or don’t and live as an educating wretch) It’s all pretty simple. So why bother?

Well… that’s the BIG BIG BIG damned question. The why bother is the thing that YOU bring to the table. The why is the thing that keeps you moving forward.

So you want to tell a story about dragons. Cool. Everybody loves dragons. Why not? But why you? What is it – inside you – that causes you to want to write about dragons? Find that. It can be almost anything. It can even be ‘dude. i just think dragons are wicked cool.’ That’s fine. But what is it about them that makes them wicked cool to YOU? Let’s take superheros for example: now it’s common knowledge that the superhero is an active character battling for justice in an inactive and occasionally subverted world, right? But what made someone write them to begin with? Probably a feeling of powerlessness in the face of powerful forces that seemed insurmountable. In short. I want Captain America to kick Hitler’s ass because my big brother Jimmy is over there and i’m scared shitless i’m never going to see him again and if Cap does it, Jimmy can come home. X-Men – racially mixed teens expunged from a society that hates and fears them, battle the forces of intolerance.

See? Simple but really damned powerful motivations.

Start from the small bones. The King dies then the queen dies. Then figure out why you care and put the muscle on those bones. In all probability you will start with your own motivation – what things are YOU trying to deal with? The king dies then the queen dies. Is it grief? Are you dealing with grief? Now you might say… i just want to write a really great story with lots of derring do and heroics. Who cares about all that thinky psychologizing stuff. Thousands of books are written just to sell a quick buck. Why can’t i just write one of those. Well, you can. But believe it or not, not caring is way harder than writing something you actually give a shit about. If you give a shit, you will want to know how the story ends. You will want to overcome the obstacles you set out for your Main Character. Because they’re YOUR obstacles too.

So. move forward from the basics and put the bones together with the idea of overcoming those things you need to get past, deal with, overcome. Hell, maybe you can’t. But you can create someone who can and when you do… well that’s the whole point. That’s the writing getting to the next level. That’s giving people the chance to say ‘you know what? I read your book, and the way you got Bobby over the hump of dealing with the death of the king so that he could then go and slay the evil queen? It saved my shit. No lie. I was in a bad place and i read that and i was like ‘i can get off my ass. If little Bobby Peachtree could do it. I can.’

Now that may seem more like thematics. Which i should talk about, but i won’t right now. Ideally you’ll be building your themes concurrent with the plot. But just remember the plot starts simple. Keep it simple. Little girl finds home. Detective finds the bad guy. Good overcomes bad. Then ask questions. Ask LOTS of questions. What is the good? What is the bad? How does good overcome? What is home? Who is the bad guy? How does the detective find him? What clues are left behind? Where do they lead? Plot is a series of this/then. That happens because this happened. Chain them all together and you have your plot.

 

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The Art of Editing – Volume 4: Ahhhh…. just forget it.

Editing Fun

For the fourth volume of my increasingly inappropriate writing advice columns i will tell you, forget all the other volumes. There it is. End Blog Post. Drop Mic.

Fact is, i don’t have a clue. Above you will see an example of how little i know. Yeah. That’s mine. Pretty isn’t it? Colorful. Just look at all that gorgeous red. Look at the sad and isolated patches of black, hanging out and thinking ‘oh dear sweet jesus. Did you see what he just did to us? We’re safe!’ Those poor remaining words. You can almost hear them heaving in fear, crying, their little beady eyes whipping back and forth looking for the incoming red pen that has mangled so many of their peers.

Nah. It’s alright. You’re safe.

For now.

Muahahahahahaha…..

The point i’m trying to make is all of this is just a poisonous stew. All of the tips and tricks i wrote about before… there’s no rhyme or reason for it. Not really. There’s no pattern of ‘do this and then do that’. There is, when i am writing, a scorched earth policy. It sucks until it doesn’t anymore and i will swing down like zeus on a dragon and burn the life out of all the words until the paragraphs and sentences gleam a little bit. Burn away the garbage until the bits of gold are all that’s left behind.

The first draft of everything is shit.

Use the shit to fuel the furnaces of the second.

I’m working on The Stonemaiden’s Cup now. It’s the first in a new series and it’s a freaking monster. The damned thing might kill me. No really. It might. It’s heavy enough, by god, to lay enemies low with one swift stroke. But i can’t stop and it must be done so whatever ‘rules’ or guidelines i had are out the window. I’m adding stuff now. I’m moving sentences around, the other day… seriously… i restructured the entire thing. ALL OF IT. I moved chapters around. Hell… i JUST added a chapter. And in between all of that there’s the slash and burn, finding the gold, razing the village with fire and wrath.

Maybe i watched one too many episodes of Vikings.

The thing is… and this is really the thing… you have to put those sentences in order and you have to make that little bastard sing for his supper if he doesn’t want to end up on the pile of the ember colored ink, smoldering with his baked brethren. If the sentence doesn’t sing and doesn’t make the paragraph sing, kill it with fire.

Every paragraph has a purpose. That should be a Monty Python song, like ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’. But it’s not sacred. If a paragraph doesn’t have a purpose – kill it. If it sounds pretty like a little fresh songbird… well… you might be able to save it, but only if you can make it work. All that rot about ‘Kill your darlings’ well… that’s more shit advice really. It’s the pretty, quaint, neato, ‘genius’ thing writers say to classes of students to make themselves sound bespectacled and brilliant but it means nothing. Save your darlings if they are worth saving. But if you’re saving them at the expense of your story, your plot, your characters, if they don’t help the survival of the whole… let em burn.

No darling ever really dies. They rise like gold laden zombies and as a brain devouring horde of rich people they shamble forth and create your work. So don’t worry about them. They’ll rise again.

Alright. Now i’m just rambling so screw it. Get to work and light a match. You have fires to start.

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The Art of Editing Vol. 3 – Ground down to a tiny nubbin.

Right. Yeah. I promised a blog about editing. So here it is. Frankly, i don’t really feel like it because i have been at it all day and my eyes are about to fall out of my head. Okay… that’s a lie. I HAVE been at it all day but i have also been goofing off in a huge proportion to the actual work getting done and THEN i hit a snag.

Right now i’m in the final phase. Proofreading. So that’s something you’ll need to figure on and put in your toolbox. It’s a bit of an annoying process. Really, it’s the easiest bit of editing because by now you should have smoothed out all the really rough edges to your work and are just on the verge of publishing the bad boy and getting out of the proverbial house. It’s all grown up and mouthing off and it wants to take your keys and go to The Who concert and it considers you a huge embarrassment.

I’ve had a proofreader go through it and i’ve gone through it myself. The Proof Copy looks like it should be good and dead with all of the scars all over it. But it isn’t. It’s breathing. It’s more alive than it’s ever been actually and i am just plinking away at patching the tiny things – putting bandaids on all the cruel cuts my red pen has made.

This should go fairly quickly, but it isn’t. I’ve hit a snag. There’s a three paragraph chunk that i somehow missed in the overall close editing that needs to be radically fixed in order for things to work. This sort of sucks, as you might imagine, because i’ve already had this thing out to Createspace and i’m working from a fully formatted Proof Copy, which means i REALLY want to keep the length as close to the original document as i possibly can or risk having to redo things that i don’t want to redo.

No big deal. I’ve got this. Tighten the language a little, kill off the massive run on sentence that i missed, smooth it out.

How do i do this you might ask in stunned and appreciative amazement? Well… it’s complicated. But basically, i stare at it until it starts changing. Is that a cop out answer? Yep. It sure is. But it’s also the truth. I roll the thing around in my head for a little while, try and figure what it is i’m trying to show the reader in that moment and let the sentences and paragraph reform themselves a little to bring that out.

Like i said – the bones are there. By this stage, if you have big changes, they’ve been done. If you are proofing, the finish line is in sight and you are stretching out for it. You’re constrained by knowing there isn’t much you CAN do short of scrapping huge chunks and rewinding yourself way back to a different stage in the editing process and you probably don’t want to do that. You’re sick of your story raiding your fridge and eating all of your food. You’ve bought it a Pinto and it’s already run it into a lake.

So yeah. Just relax. You’ve got this. Stare at that paragraph and let your wise training take over. Be the ball, Danny. I don’t want to hold you in suspense but i will say it didn’t take all that long to fix the paragraphs. There was one hefty run on that had some terrific imagery in it that actually worked better if i carved it into different sentences. It was a bit like straightening the poor guys tie before prom. Then there was the next paragraph that was far too witty for it’s own good. Cut that down to size a little and rearrange here and there, snip the silly rat tail off it’s head and make sure it has a comb in it’s pocket. Now off you go.

These things might come up in proofing. It’s important not to let it get to you. If you let it get to you, that little bastard is never leaving the house, you’re cutting up it’s drivers license and sending him back to sixth grade and you definitely don’t want to do that. You’re almost done. Just make the little fixes you need to make. Remember – we’re talking bandaids and not surgery at this point as long as i feel like mixing metaphors. Which i do. Cuz it’s my blog and i’ll mix if i want to.

If you have an open wound, stitch it up and slap a bandage on and get it out the door. That’s the lesson for the day. I know it’s nothing earth shattering but it may just save you some serious heartache.

Post Script:

Today i was completely schooled on a grammatical foible i have been committing – unwittingly – since time immemorial. The terrible error of my ways has been pointed out and i shall not err again. Lesson learned. But there you go kids, the minute you think you know everything – you don’t. And that’s a good thing.

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The Art of Editing (according to me) Vol. 2 – Further Down The Rabbit Hole

IMG_0203Phew. Dang. I didn’t think that introduction was ever going to get out of the way. But now what? I’ve got em hooked. What do i do with a second act? Do i have a second act? What’s my next step? Oh God. What do i do?

Panic.

Panic should be your next step. So run off and take care of that. Chop Chop.

You think i’m kidding. I’m serious. Hanging out with a bunch of characters and a huge sprawling plot for months on end is not a ‘normal’ act in polite society. People frown on that. You are – officially – a weirdo. Which is fine. Weirdo’s make the best people. But a little panic is in order. You should celebrate. You should freak out a little. You should lose your mind a lot. You should wonder what comes next. You should panic. So go take care of that pronto and then come back. I’ll wait.

All right. How long did that take? Hopefully long enough because your next step in the epic that you just wrote is shoving the whole thing in a drawer for a while. Get it out of your head. Purge. You need the distance for the next step because a little distance really helps when you have to go back to it. I suggest you take up knitting or doing jigsaw puzzles or learning Swahili. Take your mind off of it and learn something new and different. Keep the brain minty fresh. You’re going to need it.

So you might ask – why? And provided you’re actually asking this WHY in relation to me suggesting you put it away for a while and think of something else, i will tell you. If your ‘Why?’ is merely general and existential i recommend Sartre or Camus. You have to get away from it is why. You have to let your brain catch up with where you are now. If you’re anything like me, that little noggin of yours has been reaching for that story in the darkest watches of the night every chance it can get it’s grubby little mitts on a spare thought. It’s like you’ve been shut in a closet with a film projector that occasionally breaks. Now is the point you come out and actually see the sun and trees and breath some air that is unadorned with the stank of mothballs.

If you were to look at it now – your story that is – you might not see anything different from what you saw yesterday. You would still be ‘In’ the story. That doesn’t help you read it and reading is what you need to do next. You need to read it just like joe schmoe on the street, if joe bothered to read anything other than the racing form.

Reading is the first act of editing.

Now when i say reading, i’m getting a little ahead of myself. Basically what i’m going to – or HOPE i’m going to – give you in the next few installments are the individual processes. What order you put them in are mostly up to you. I will not – nor CAN i say that there is ONE WAY to do this. There are only steps. Like tools. Reading is the first tool you will see in the tool box.

But there are different ways to read. So it’s a bit like a wrench. You know how there are eighty billion different types of wrenches out there.

Your first read through, in my opinion, shouldn’t be just slack jawed. After all, you already know you’re going to have to tinker with this beast. But, in my opinion, it helps if you keep your immediate goals reachable with the first read through. If you need to fix things – focus on the annoying mistakes you knew you made. Things like spelling and Your/You’re issues. This makes this step manageable and gives you a little boost to keep going. That’s important because you’re in this for the long haul. This is the first step in polishing the marble. Your story isn’t going to move and grab your readers without you committing to the process and little reachable things like that can help you – so long as you give yourself credit for them.

Give yourself credit for them. There will be innumerable opportunities to kick your own ass during the editing process and it IS going to hurt and get pretty tiring after a while. So you HAVE to remember – this is really fricking important – you MUST remember to give yourself credit. 90% of the time you are going to be your own best cheerleader. Everyone else has already gotten tired of you squirreling yourself away and not being social and unless you have a miracle angel talking cheerleading Pegacorn, you’re it.

So, Back to the reading. Read it and make those little changes. Take notes. DO NOT scribble all over your manuscript. That just diminishes your agency and gives you a consistent visual reminder of your suckitude in those moments when you least need it. I usually start with a list in a notebook – a bit like the planning period before i sat down and wrote. If i can (and lets face it – MUST) alter a sentence, that’s fine. So long as you keep the little edits reasonable. You don’t want to muck about with too much lest you start yanking on a thread that unravels the whole damned sweater.

Take notes. Make the little changes. If you have a computer program that allows you to tack on sticky notes to things, that works really well.

What sort of notes? Well… that’s really up to you. Read it for the flow first. Read to make sure the thing makes sense, that your transitions are good and that you at least have the sketch of the emotional and plot driven content you were looking for. Read CLOSELY. Read primarily for story. There will be plenty of opportunities to get nitpicky with the grammar but this isn’t one of them. Right now you just want to make sure that the structure is in place and where it isn’t, leave a note for the engineers to shore up the bulwarks. Don’t be afraid to sit and think at the end of chapters. There are times, and they aren’t rare, when i’ve written something and don’t have a clue WHY i wrote it. This is generally the step where i start to figure out why.

I generally don’t find notes like ‘this sucks’ very helpful mainly because there have been quite a few times where i come back to that note after a little while and i’m like ‘what sucks? You’re an idiot. There’s nothing wrong with that.’ Notes like ‘let loose the dialog a little here.’ or ‘find better verbs’ or ‘string this out and add tension’ seem to work much better because then you have some sort of launchpad for the next step.

Which is where the real work begins.

Make your notes specific but not so specific that you’re technically rewriting, which i will get to. And don’t forget that this is not a ‘do this first and this second’ sort of advice column thing. This is a tool box. Rewriting is the another tool i will be talking about. You may lay the wrench of reading aside on the worktable and pick up the hacksaw of rewriting and then shift back to the wrench. They don’t have to be in any particular order. All you’re looking to do is get the rough piece of wood to look a bit more like the thing you saw in the plans.

Now, finally, you have finished reading it through. I hope. You have a whole bunch of well organized notes to guide you through choosing the proper tool for the next step. But remember, before you start, take a bow. Have a sandwich. Listen to some good music and give yourself credit. You have finished the first step in editing. You are a shiny golden god. You can do this. You will do this. Because the world needs your book.

Take this step because you are about to step out of the blue and into the black.

See ya next week.

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The Art of Editing (according to me) Vol. 1

Alright. Are we all situated? Should i take attendance? Ah screw it. Sit wherever you want. This here Blog is The Art of Editing 101. I say 101 because i’m probably not qualified to teach an upper level class on the subject. But i’m going to put a few thoughts out there in a few volumes. Whether you like it or not.

So sit down. Shush. Take notes. Yell at me. Whatever you need to do. But this is important. Seriously. No really. You in the back. I see you playing Pet Rescue. Put it away.

The first thing you need to know if you are a writer, or want to be a writer, is that editing is every bit as much an art as the actual writing process is. Start thinking of it like that. Everybody thinks that it’s a grand thing living in a wonderful floaty cloud on high, plinking away at your keyboards, creating brilliant new worlds, inventing characters. I have personally met artists who believe that the products of their fingers is spun gold straight from the start.

They are liars.

No one writes spun gold. No one. Not ever. Not once. Not in the entire history of all stories ever told.

What artists do is they start to understand that editing is every bit the process of art that drafts are. Possibly more so. Do not presume that your first, second, third, fourth, eighth effort is worthy of production and publication. It’s not. No really. Its not.

No. REALLY.

You aren’t going to believe me no matter what i say, so i’ll just put this out there as coldly as i can. If you are a self pubber, or e book writer, chances are this is going to happen to you. It’s happened to me. Here’s how it goes: You write something wonderful and you think: “oh my god! I’ve got it!” and you’ll rush to press with whatever it is, dreaming of riches falling out of the sky and the accolades and adoration of your fans.

There is even a tiny chance – infinitesimally small – that you’ll actually RECEIVE those things (which is far far worse, really, than if you don’t.)

Then, many years later, you will review that thing you rushed to press and you will invariably head-desk so fricking hard Mr. Miyagi will want to take lessons from you on how to break tables with your forehead. (another tip: this is going to happen anyway, but I hope to help mitigate the damage to furniture if I can.)

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are authors among us, very popular authors, who somehow get that fantastic ego ballooned to ludicrous proportions by enigmatic success and become impervious to this effect because… well… filthy luchre is still pouring in so they can’t be that bad… but they are.

Write well. No one gives a rats ass if you have money coming out of your rectum if you still can’t carry a tune and write a sentence. In fact, you’ll be an even bigger asshole. They’ll gladly stand around with their hands out smiling at you long enough to grease their palms but at the end of the day, you’re still going to have pros call you an inveterate shmuck.

So….

Sorry for that preamble. But that’s where it’s at.

Editing is an art. This is Volume One of the things i’ve learned. Subtitled even further as The Introduction. If you are content to fumble about taking chances and hoping for the best then don’t worry. You don’t need to come back. If you WANT to get better, I can tell you the things that have helped me.

Am I a great writer with fame and fortune to spare? Nope. But I am someone who more often than not does NOT put things out into the world that I would be ashamed to stand behind. I do not claim wealth and success… yet. And I don’t want to, until I feel like i’ve earned it.

Editing is an Art. Are you sick of me saying it yet? I’m going to keep saying it. It’s a beautiful thing in itself.

Take a picture. Go outside right now and snap a shot of any random thing. ANYTHING. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Got it? Now take a look at that picture. Is it art? No. It’s probably a shot of your cat, or maybe a shot of your car. Or the nearest snow bank. That’s fine. You aren’t a photographer. And I JUST asked you to take a shot of any random thing. But what’s the big difference between you and a professional photographer? A professional photographer would have set his composition. He would have framed it. He would probably have gone into some program and tweaked it. He might have cropped it, adjusted colors. If he was old school he would have used chemicals to do this and that mysterious alchemical thing we whisper about – photographic process. He might have used a different camera or a different film. He did all of this because he KNOWS how.

How does he know how to do this you ask?

Because he has screwed it all up before. Editing is the process by which you hone your talent. The more you edit, the better you are at drafting and setting up the originals, the less things there are to edit the next time.

It’s the art of getting yourself closer to what it is you want of your art. You had the idea, you know what you want to say, you know how you WANT your reader to feel. Now you must craft and hone and tinker and process and alter the color and get the notes right until that IS what they get.

Or die trying.

And don’t get me wrong… it might kill you.

End of The Introduction.

Coming Soon – Volume Two – The Basics.

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Oh The Things You Don’t Know

I’m finally getting to the point where i’m ready to publish Meg Brown Mysteries #6 – Meg Beats Cancer. Finally. It’s taken ages – like a full year since i wrote the last word. Which is just ridiculous. You might ask ‘why did it take so freaking long?’ Well… I can tell you. It’s not the things you don’t know that will mess you up. It’s the things you don’t even know you don’t know. Things like cover design, page layout, formatting. E publishing is a piece of cake compared to getting something ready for Print on Demand.

I did the cover myself. It wasn’t bad. I liked it. Everything was in its place and everything had a point and it wasn’t easy. As the story begins, and leads up to one epic fight in a very literal sense, i figured the background should convey that. It’s not easy making your type face into something that looks like blood stains and spatter. Nor is it easy making a blank background with wreckage and cracks. It was a good cover. It is a good cover. It has meaning and flows with the story.

But that isn’t the hard part. The hard part was putting it together. I do not have a publishing program, nor do i particularly have the skills to use such a program if i had one. Given certain events, which i will not address here to protect the innocent and the awesome (neither of which is me, sadly) I did something i generally don’t do. I asked for help.

‘Why don’t i ask for help more often?’, you may say. Well… it’s complicated, but the long and short of it is i have found that help is often LONG in coming – as in REALLY long – as in many times i ask and get a promise of help and then wait… and wait…. AND wait. And then wait longer. And then do some more waiting. And finally resign myself to never hearing from my ‘helper’ again. This is why i tend to keep things in house. Not to mention, sometimes the help isn’t terrifically helpful. Sometimes it’s actually antagonistic. Most of the time it takes the form of ‘yeah… i remember i said i would help, but dude… i’m eating pizza right now and Survivor just started.’ Correction, most of the time ‘Help’ takes the form of complete radio silence.

It’s enough to make a guy get a little bitter.

It’s enough to make you learn your lesson not to ask for help.

I hate being disappointed with people. I like to like people. Consequently, i try to give myself as few opportunities as possible to be disappointed in them.

Anyway. now that really sounds gripey. The point is, i didn’t go to my friends. Well… i did… and got disappointed. So i went to a professional with the pieces of the cover. She did a terrific job. The cover got finished. But here’s where the ‘didn’t know what i didn’t know’ part comes in. The SPINE of the book. It seems obvious in retrospect that the thing keeping all the pages together would be variable in size and you would need to figure it out somehow. There is a calculation to be made. This calculation is itself dependent on the trim size of the book. (basically the size of the book… trim size is one of those publishy terms that tell you the dimensions. i don’t know why they don’t just say… y’know ‘dimension’.)

So i fixed the ‘dimensions’ in the master file of the book. I looked at it. It didn’t look like a book. It looked like pages of some epic poem. The problem was the margins. In a real book, the margins have to be offset – basically alternating off center because of the space at the edge where one page curves into the binding. Right? Makes sense. Well… i didn’t know that. And i had no idea how to format that in a document so that it worked out. Luckily, Createspace has a handy dandy little template you can use. After a little rejiggering and a huge cut and paste, i managed to get it straightened out, got a NEW page count, had my cover designer recalculate the pixel size of the spine, redid the spine (at the end of the day i redrew the spine 5 times) and i am finally, almost, off to the races.

If you’re wondering who my cover designer is because you’re looking for one, it’s Kat Mellon. She does great work. If you’re not inclined to take my route and do it yourself, i highly recommend her. She’s excellent.

Anyway. It’s done. There’s more, of course. The book is nearly ready. It will be ready probably this weekend. The cover is done. And that’s about all i’m going to say about it.

The point of this blog is, there are ALWAYS things you don’t know that you don’t know somewhere out there waiting for you. Chances are pretty good that you’re going to sink knee deep in them at some point. They can be simple things that you just had no idea about and learning about them can be a grand experience, expanding your awareness. On the other hand there are the things that sap your strength, your will, your faith. There are things that clutch at your heart and snatch away the hope and joy you had if you let it. Trust yourself, gird yourself, take a deep breath. Do the best you can. And don’t give helpers the opportunity to disappoint you. If you can, and have the money (which i do not) hire the services of a professional and turn your book over to them to do all that stuff. It’s generally not worth the headache.

If you CHOOSE to follow my route – or are equally poor – well… that’s why i wrote this. So that you have a little foreknowledge of some of the things you do not yet know.

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Nano Day… Whatever. I’ve lost track

Ashley2Alright. Let’s make this quick. I’m in the middle of a bit of a word war with the Shadow and Clay blog. I don’t have time for this blogging nonsense. Don’t you know it’s NANO?

Anyway. So here it is in a nutshell: After two weeks of work on this novel and 37000 words or so i can freely and honestly admit that it has spiraled out of control. I’m still really enjoying it and i’m having a blast writing the bits and bobs of it but those bits and bobs are only SLOWLY building into a story. I feel as though i haven’t even really started yet.

But that’s Nano for you. Get those words down. A draft – no matter how horrible or meandering or completely lost, or whatever, is nothing if not the longest outline you’re going to write. As of right now – all of the little bits i’ve been thinking over for more than a month are coming out. I have a talking hawk who is gradually inserting herself more and more into the story. I had no idea Ashley would become such a handful.

The little meeting with the talking whale who lives in an ocean inside a maintenance shed at the zoo went off perfectly and had everything i wanted. I have a group of nosy middle class suburbanite jerkfaces muddling in my MC’s business. I’ve got everything i wanted except a story that is moving inexorably to it’s conclusion. In fact, 37000 words in and i feel like i’m still in the first few chapters explaining the characters.

I finally have my main character, Lola, getting a tour of the school she’s going to attend. This SHOULD have happened in the first 10000 words but here i am. Way late – And dreading the intense and massive editing process to come. What gets saved? Will i have to reorganize everything? Can i condense? Do i just plod on and include all that i want to?

These are all thoughts for a much later date. For now, WRITE WRITE WRITE!!! GET IT ALL DOWN!

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The Nano Prep Begins – but what do i write?

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Here to inaugurate the great Nano 2014 is my glorious and insightful blog post about where to find the idea. You know. THE idea. The idea that will spin you off to Nano Victory this year and win you awards and accolades and acclaims of sheer genius. These tried and true methods are the best in the business. Even though they’ve never been tried. And might not be true. Either way they’ve worked pretty well for me in the past and they might be good for someone. Somewhere.

Let it be known, of course, that i am not a professional nor have these methods been endorsed by any professionals. In fact, i don’t know any professionals and i don’t think i want to. They’re a silly bunch who prefer wandering around the castle breaking into song at inappropriate moments such as before coffee.

So where do you get your idea?

This is going to sound pretty straightforward but here it is: FROM YOUR BRAIN. I know. Someone has a bitchslap aimed at my face right now but that’s really the easiest way to put it. It doesn’t take long for me to find an idea. It does, on the other hand, take a bit of time. And believe it or not ideas do not usually come down on a thunderbolt sent from Thor’s hammer. They come from taking seemingly random shit that has been stuck in the collective attic of your skull for a long time, just gathering dust.

Here’s what you do: Climb the creaky ladder in your head and start pawing through the attic. Open the various dusty boxes, take in the smell of mold, wipe away some cobwebs. You know when you go up there that you’re going to find something. Your going to open that one box marked ’80’s movie posters’ or ‘mix tapes from high school’ and something is going to pop out at you. It could be anything but it will have a potent meaning to you and it will grab hold with some nostalgia, spinning up memories and all that. Ideas are like that in that, when you find them you know you’ve found them.

But ideas aren’t memories at all. It’s stuff you’ve been storing in your brain. Stuff you keep around. Knick Knacks you’ve been meaning to put up somewhere but haven’t got around to it yet. And they can be anything. Literally anything. You may not even know what they are.

Which brings me to the second point. An idea isn’t anything until you get your brain working on it. Here’s how it works: You know that pretty piece of rock you found in the box in the attic of your brain. Take a look at it. Get your head out of the way. Don’t think of it as a thing or a something. Think of all of it and open up to it. Is there a memory to go with it? Throw that in the mixing bowl. Is it the color? What does the color say to you? Throw that in there. If someone gave it to you, why? Throw that in there. Is it shaped like Shia LeBoefs head? Throw that in there.

Now mix it all around and make a story out of it.

This is all confused and stupid isn’t it? It is. So what? This is what works for me.

Oh. And there’s something else. You have to get your writing imagination to start WORKING on this stuff. Lets take a concrete example. Lets say i have nothing to write for nano this year. On my desk right now are a series of knickknacks. For real. I have a small felted chicken, some plastic Muppet Star Wars figures, a knitted plush elephant and a wooden ship my grandpa made. How do i get my writing imagination to work on this stuff. It isn’t the stuff of high literature. It doesn’t have GRAVITAS. Well… make it. What if these weird little figures hopped on that ship and took a grand voyage of adventure? What if the beaker C3P0 was secretly in love with the Gonzo Darth Vader but he hated the felted chicken who was Beaker C3PO’s best friend because of something that happened in the past? What was that thing that happened in the past? What if Beaker is the worlds greatest salad maker prized for his ability to put amazing salad’s together and desires nothing more than a rare leaf lettuce from indonesia that grows only once in a blue moon that falls on a saturday in march?

What if’s are your life blood when creating an idea. And a what if should NEVER be stopped in the planning stages. You’ll start editing your idea once you hook into something you get excited about.

Ideas SHOULD be ridiculous. They should be a story. They should be your playground brain creating scenes and stories out of the shipwreck flotsam you find on a playground. It works the same way. You know that the slide wasn’t JUST a slide when you were a kid. It was a ramp to alien spacecraft, it was a fire outlook, it was the tip of an island slowly sinking into the sea. Ideas are the same thing. Don’t let your grown up brain interfere with them.

Now… You’ve got something. You’ve got a bunch of weird characters on a ship on a quixotic quest to find a leaf lettuce in indonesia. It may not seem like much – particularly if you have been unable to keep your editing brain from tinkering with it. But it is something. And if you’ve done it right you’re probably wondering where the fuck did that all come from? Don’t bother to think about it. This is your weirdo writing subconscious at work. Just keep generating. But now you can do a little refinement.

I have these people on a ship. Who are they? Why are they on a ship? Is that really important that they’re on a ship? What is the ship REALLY like? Strip away the plastic beaker C3PO and evolve that character into someone. Baker, Candlestick maker, get to know them. Don’t interview them like one would a celebrity on tv. Get them drunk and hold their hair while they throw up. Listen to what they whine about while drunk, watch the fights that happen. All of this stuff is important. It’s coming from YOUR HEAD. Which means, subconsciously that you’ve stumbled upon shit that is somehow – in some obscure way – important to YOU. You haven’t made it up like some 35 year old wanna be architect playing with lincoln logs. You’ve let it pop through your skull. You have AN idea. It may not be a great idea but it’s an idea.

Oh yeah. And do yourself a favor. Don’t start your Nano on a quest for a great idea. It’s a terrific way to start yourself in the hole. Let your brain stumble upon a great idea like sea glass on the beach. Let your brain play. That – to me – is what nano is all about. Not the great novel but a rediscovery of the playground and all the worlds it contains.

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Have Pen, Will Sing: Karaoke for the writing soul.

keep-calm-and-karaoke-4-1The fact is writers, when traveling, should karaoke. Why? Cuz. Reasons. Let’s face it – most of the time, you barricade yourself behind a computer. You hammer out stories and words and thoughts and all that stuff and that’s terrific and all but you probably need to loosen up around people. Maybe just a little, maybe just a lot.

So what do you do, hotshot? Yeah. You with all your pretty words. Here’s what you do. You get out there while you are traveling. And Karaoke in an unfamiliar city is the perfect opportunity for this. Why? Because, there’s a good chance you may never see these people again which nicely mitigates the risk of complete embarrassment.

And you will, most likely, be completely embarrassed. It’s okay. That’s completely built into the matrix of Karaoke. Let’s face it, you could use it. You think too much of yourself already. You’ve got a chip on your shoulder. You need to take yourself down a peg.

So this is one moment in the life of the traveling writer where you can leave your notebook at home, grab a vodka cranberry (or four) and screw up the courage to put yourself on stage to belt out (as best as you can) the lyrics to Celine Dion. Or something.

But here’s a little tip: If you want to go whole hog on the knocking yourself down a peg (and want a fairly cheap, but well worth it show) try Karaoke in LA. Yes. Home of every up and coming or want to be up and coming star. They do things pretty seriously fun out there and the show you’re about to see is worth some writing fodder.

In my case, we went to a place for my birthday. A friend suggested it as I was incapable of coming up with an idea for something to do and they already knew i loved Karaoke. It was, well…. it was something else. I was expecting the usual ego massaging sort of thing where everyone is of a similar talent level (ie – None) but this definitely isn’t the case. There were people there who could flat-out wail. There were those who couldn’t carry a tune. There was a guy and his friend who danced out ALL of Kevin Bacon’s dance routine in footloose while someone sang it. There was the girl who timidly climbed the stage to sing Whitney Houston and then nailed it so hard I actually LIKED Whitney Houston for five minutes. Yeah. And I had to follow her on stage with my weak rendition of Johnny Cash’s Big River.

Intimidating? Yes. Totally worth it? Absolutely.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well… as you’ve probably gathered from many of my other posts, everything has to do with writing. And once again, it’s a great place for character. We writers are introverts by nature. And that’s okay. But while traveling, it’s critical to get out there and meet and do things a little outside of your comfort zone. If you don’t, as i mentioned before, you’ll most likely end up sitting in your hotel room tapping away on something. This is fine. You should do that. But not that ALL the time, and you need to smash down your own barriers. Karaoke is a fairly efficient method for doing that. Let the song flow through you. Be it’s conduit.

I don’t care that you sing like a tortured moose. Do it anyway. The guy who actually SANG the footloose tune that the other guys were dancing to? Yeah. Awful. But he did it anyway. It brought him joy and happiness and it will to you to. It doesn’t matter if you wail like you just stubbed your toe on a porcupine. The most important thing is just showing up.

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Have Pen Will Travel pt. 2 –

venice2Yeah. I’m back. I know it’s been a while but you know how it goes. Life stuff. No time. Writing a novel. All that stuff. But now I’m here and you all missed me, right? RIGHT?

For starters, lets talk a little about where to stay on this trip of yours. As a writer, what you really need is to get out from under the protective shell of a comfy hotel room. I mean, let’s be honest here, what are you going to do in a hotel room? Watch TV probably. Are you going to learn anything about your foreign surroundings like that? Probably not. Most likely, you’ll sit in your room soaking in the wonderful, lovely king sized bed.

Don’t do this. Your best bet, as a writer, is to find a friend and hopefully crash at their place for a day or two. Couch surf if you can. I stayed most of the week at the wonderful little pad of my friend who was gracious enough to attempt putting up an air mattress for me – which collapsed under me as i tried to sleep. Twice. But luckily her couch is wonderful, so it was an easy switch.

‘Why couch surf?’ you might say. ‘Isn’t this supposed to be a vacation? Aren’t i imposing on them?” Yes. Yes. and yes. I do and did feel like i was imposing a great deal. Hopefully you can ameliorate these feelings by providing a gift or buying them a few meals etc. What you get out of it though is catching up on old friends, which can be wonderful, plus an introduction on the town you now find yourself in.

I had no sooner dropped my bags in her house and we were out the door. I was on a mission to buy myself a new hat at the Venice Hat Shop. They’d served me very well in the past and for my birthday i was going to select a new hat for myself. This didn’t go all that well to be quite honest. Which just goes to show you, dear writer, that the best laid plans and all that. I still have the hat and it isn’t bad it’s just noisy. Why is a hat noisy? I don’t understand it. But it is.

Anyway, Right after that we wandered all the way down the Venice Boardwalk on a saturday. If you have never done this, there is simply no better place that I know of for people watching. And it was CRAMMED with people. A bit like going to a foreign bazaar, really. It was just an ongoing flood of people that i, a little trout, had to swim against and weave through. If you get a chance of walking the boardwalk on a warm day in the summer, do so at a leisurely pace so you can take it all in – the sand, the people, the strange little shops, the feel of the ocean, the breeze…

Venice Boardwalk is practically legendary. You see it in commercials, in shows, in movies. You’ve probably heard about it. But nothing quite prepares you for it – the folks skating up on roller blades with handfuls of CD’s that they’re trying to sell, the street shops – little stands selling art or selling the privilege of photographing sand sculptures, the guys in surgical scrubs advertising a medical marijuana shop. I gather the weirdness factor has become a little commercialized over the years hence the new Venice slogan (sadly not very unique and possibly pilfered from Austin): “Keep Venice Weird.” But if you’re from one of those sad sections of America (or elsewhere) where ‘weirdness’ is still something to be met with an inquisition you’ll find the place a great big gasp of interestingly flavored air.

But the real trick to being a writer in Venice is having a seat. Pull up a chair at one of the many boardwalk bars or restaurants – there are some good ones – and just enjoy the flow of people. Get a drink. I’d recommend the Venice Ale House – which is closer to the dividing line between Venice and Santa Monica. It’s a little small and their turnover is rapid – meaning you may not get the chance to hang out that long, not that they’ll actually kick you out, but you might get the impression that you should push on before long. If you want to sit for a while, though, take yourself to the Sidewalk Cafe – tons of outside seating. More like a warehouse for thirsty people, actually, but a warehouse with some excellent architecture and a location that can’t be beat. It’s just huge. If you’re so inclined, make a day of it and do both. Take the Ale House for breakfast and chill at the Cafe afternoon. If you do it on a weekday it shouldn’t be so incredibly, mind-oversaturatingly busy.

As a writer you could spend hours there and you probably should. There are quite a few wonderful little beachfront bars and restaurants to choose from to plop your shit and just soak it all in.

But we did none of that. We were on a mission, a birthday mission. And this time it wasn’t mine.

After a good LONG while walking at top speed through the crush we hung a left and headed straight on some main street. This is the other reason to stay at a friend’s place – particularly some place like LA – they know how to get places. Left to your own devices, you’re apt to get lost. Or wander aimlessly into some unsavory places – which you should probably do as well but more on that in another post.

But here’s the REAL reason you want to hang with friends as a writer. Introductions. We finally got to where we were going after a long walk in a direction I could only really define as Left. Left from the beach. Which means east- ish? Sure. That sounds good. Anyway, it was a bar. A very crowded, packed bar. Why? Because they were having a birthday for someone I hadn’t met. No problem, with the help of my friend and a few quick introductions I ended up having several lengthy conversations with total strangers who very rapidly became not strangers at all.

Which brings me to the next bit about Travel as a Writer. You really have to make the attempt to open yourself up in ways you never thought to do before. I know – easier said than done right? But seriously. The thing that worked for me – and it’s going to sound really obnoxiously trite – is thinking ‘these are just friends I haven’t met yet.’ I know. Groan. But it worked. Whatever you have to do to get yourself to the point of being open and personable. Relax. If the worst comes to worst you can always tell yourself ‘these are also people I’m never likely to see again.’ Think of yourself as a bit of a journalist, though not so annoying and probing.

And if none of that shit works just relax. You’re on vacation. Chances are, if you really open yourself up you will meet some wonderful people. I met a lady, the wife of one of my friend’s friends, who was about as inclined to be crushed into a drinking mob of strangers as i was. It’s funny how you’ll do things for a birthday you’d be less inclined to do otherwise. But there we are. We had a nice long conversation about stuff in general and it was really relaxing and fantastic. I explained my burgeoning theory about LA that, in spite of appearances to the contrary and general conventional wisdom, LA is the national capital for Introverts. I know. You’re probably thinking i’ve gone completely nuts now. And i might be. I would need a much longer time to explore this theory, but there it is. And i think i’ll leave you with that for now. The theory itself might be better served in another blog post.

Hey… i’ve got to keep you coming back for some reason right?

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