Posts Tagged With: writing advice

Why Genre Writing Matters

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Yesterday i spent a long drive down to Burlington, Wisconsin to play a board game with some old friends. Now, by old, i mean we aren’t old. Older than we were, for sure. But time’s a funny thing. You don’t see it passing, it just does and one day you’re 40 and you haven’t seen those people you grew up with for 20 years or so, but even that time… weird though it is… evaporates as soon as you are in a basement with dice in your hand playing a board game. Just like you used to do.

But this isn’t really about that. Maybe i’ll hold that one off for later.

This is about the writer i heard on the news radio station i was listening to on the way down there. I don’t remember her name, but i can tell you she’s a shakespearean professor of english and she writes Romance. From the sound of things she makes a freaking KILLING at it too. Note – this is also not a promotional ad for all budding writers to run out and scribble some romance for the sake of riches.

Anyway, she chatted a little about the killing she was making at it and most importantly how those in her profession – her literary colleagues – were oblivious to it. They were completely unaware that her professor salary was dwarfed in the extreme by the small fortune she was raking in for writing pulpy bodice rippers. Well. Ain’t that just the shit?

I grew up with Genre writing. I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought Genre writing was called books. But i poured through The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I graduated, slowly, to horror through Stephen King and then to… ahhh… this is fun… The Dragonlance Chronicles by Weis and Hickman. I was so damned envious when one of my friends scored a signed copy of Dragons of… something. I read them all. Then i soaked in Sci Fi for a while – Heinlein, Card, and then…

Neuromancer. I’ll be honest. Neuromancer broke my brain. The prose. Hell, i didn’t even really know what prose was at the time but i knew this was something different. For a while, William Gibson became my god and everything became Cyberpunk. Everything. And it was a delight. The world was complicated. Fast. Beautiful like moonlight on a heap of discarded computer parts or neon glinting on gutter junk.

Somewhere along the way, though, i stopped.

But that’s not a tragedy. There is more to the world than Genre fiction. I don’t regret for a second falling in love with Steinbeck or Hemingway or Austen or Fitzgerald. I would be an utter idiot for not falling for it. It’s beautiful, amazing stuff and it’s expanded my brain further than i think Genre fiction would have been able to. Plus, and this is really it, i burned out on Genre. It became harder and harder to find GOOD books in fantasy or Sci Fi. So much of it just seemed the same. It wasn’t the sort of hell i ever expected but it did suck.

The point of all this autobiographical blah blah is that there is still something to Genre fiction. There’s a reason so many people still read and love it and frankly, i think i got it. I got the bug again. And here it is – here’s the big secret that i think is worth telling. Shhhh… don’t let too many people know.

Genre fiction brings you hope.

There. There it is. That’s the secret.

I was watching Tomorrowland with George Clooney or as my friend and i like to call him Eyorhay Kloonay. It’s not a bad little film. Flashy. Fun. But one part stuck with me. The main character is sitting in school through a series of montages of her classes as she’s being bombarded with the negative reality of the world she lives in – war, famine, global warming, starvation, etc. Her hand is perpetually up and perpetually ignored. Finally, at the end of the montage, the teacher allows her to ask her question. What is her question?

How do we fix it?

Okay. And that’s pretty genius. Cuz here we are and the world seems like it’s falling apart around our shoulders and everything sucks and people are getting stupider and blathering bullshit everywhere we look and it gets really depressing when you see glaciers calve off and ice shelfs fall into the sea and everyone is all like ‘lalalalalalaaaaa!!! Let’s fucking PARTAY!’

But Genre fiction… It asks the question. How are you going to fix it? It ennobles the idiotic savage. How many sci-fi stories have inspired new scientists? Neil Degrasse Tyson has indicated that it’s inspired him. How many fantasy stories have made activists of kids who have gotten inculcated into the concept of evil. They WANT to be heroes. Maybe it’s not the only thing, but start them young on something… and miracles are possible.

Hell start em old. Start them whenever. In Mysteries, terrible crimes get solved in a way they so rarely do when we see all the blood splashed all over the news. In fantasy, we fight evil and we win. In sci fi we explore and face our fears of the unknown. In romance we find love in spite of terrible obstacles.

We fucking need these things. Particularly now when the world DOES seem so horrible. We need to believe in doing the right thing, being brave, exploring. The challenges are HUGE and… well.. this is just my opinion but the only damned thing that is going to save our asses against the ever-yawning void of the banality of tragic indifference is an ascendancy of imagination.

Remember that part of Lord of the Rings when Gandalf is talking about the ephemeral nature of hope? Yeah. That. Right there. How many kids read that and said: Fuck yeah. That’s going to be me some day. I’m going to stand in front of the Witch King of Angmar and though he’s going to rend me to ribbons, it’s where i need to stand. How many looked into the stars and saw themselves in a spaceship scudding among them?

Genre fiction spits in the face of the impossible. It eats it for breakfast and poops out rainbows. And hell… we can’t go wrong when it teaches us that you can stand with a dwarf and an elf and battle a freaking dragon. A. FREAKING. DRAGON. It says: yeah… i know these people are weird, different, different races that i don’t really understand but right now, these are the crew that are going to battle THAT big fricking dragon so i don’t give one god damn that one’s short and the other has pointy ears.

So, yeah. We need it. And i’m happy to write it. I want to do it as well as i know how because i WANT some kid to read it and be like ‘hell yeah. This is what justice is all about. This is what friendship is all about. This is what i’m looking to create in MY life.’

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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 (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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The End of the Road – Sort of: NaNoWriMo comes to a close but the story goes on.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

So. I finished almost a week ago now and seeing as my ‘victory dance’ was rewarding myself with Dragon Age: Inquisition, i have been hanging out in Thedas since then. If you need me you’ll find me wandering more or less aimlessly through The Hinterlands, or some other bandit choked place.

But that’s not why you’re here are you? You’re here to find out how it all shook out and when you’ll be able to read my Nano masterwork. At least that’s what i hope you’re here for. Well… it’ll be a while now. This is my fourth completed Nano and this year i’ve had a big year in terms of writing. I finally finished working on the draft of The Stonemaidens Cup and have been up to my eyeballs in editing the massive thing. I finished writing and MOST of the editing of Meg Brown number 6: Meg Beats Cancer. I wrote a teleplay for the Nano group for Castle. I wrote a short story that i’m working on editing for Wattpad or somewhere similar, then there is Meg Brown 7 – last year’s Nano project which is just about finished in draft form and now The Normal Zoo. So really, in a weird way, Nano is a bit just like a day at the office.

But i love my office. And i love Nano and all the nano’ers reaching for their dreams.

The Normal Zoo isn’t finished. In fact, it’s gotten a bit bigger since ‘finishing’ the word count goal and will get bigger still as i work to complete it. It’s hard to see right now how much further i have to go. What i should do is take a breath that isn’t filled with Thedas air, take a gander at what i’ve got and start mapping out where to go next from here to finish it. Planning ahead this year (which i confess i didn’t do much of last year) really set me up well to coast on the word count for the first week or two and then it became another heavy slog where the story just puffed out like a popcorn kernal.

In the end, i’m starting to think The Normal Zoo MIGHT just become a series. I hope not. I have too many series already and aside from my Meg Brown Books and the Longmire novels i love by Craig Johnson, i’m just not into series. The trouble is that the book ballooned a little larger than i thought it would. I had more ground to cover than i figured. It’s possible that i’ll be able to chop it down in the end and get it under the word count for publication but it’s really hard to see that right now seeing as i’m at 55,000 or so and i think i JUST rounded the middle.

But again. It’s hard to tell.

So how was Nano this year? In some ways it was fantastic. I got to really tuck in to a story. When you tuck in like that you start with these people and you’re really sort of nervous around them. You don’t know them. They don’t know you. LIke any first time conversation, there’s a little awkwardness and unpleasant silences you or they desperately try to fill. Just like reading, though, you come to know them and they start surprising you and you start to love them a little more and loving them is what you need. Even the bad guys. Yes. I sort of love the Worsteads. I hate them, because they are awful people but they’re very vivid to me. But nothing beats Ashley and Lola and Mia and Emily. I didn’t expect Lola to be into old movies and film noir. That was lovely and we bonded over The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey. I didn’t expect Ashley to be so… funny. She’s really brave but doesn’t believe it at all and she’s… well… hopefully you’ll see. Yeah. I got to know them and for the moment anyway, i’ve left Lola in a bit of a low spot but she’s already trying to work her way out of it and i expect she’s going to get herself into a bit of trouble before then.

I miss the Chateau of Soot. I didn’t spend enough time there and would very much like to – when i rewrite it – give it it’s due. It’s a grand place, full of dust but very homey. I don’t know why it’s called the Chateau of Soot. It’s not actually sooty.

There’s nothing quite like having this thing bubbling and toiling in your head for a while – an idea that is pretty bizarre no matter which way you look at it – and finally sitting down and cranking out on it. It’s a flood like you see in a gum commercial, full of cool blue waves stanching the embers in your head that are threatening to get out of control. It’s a sudden cool ocean breeze on an otherwise sweltering day. It’s a lot of things. And that’s what Nano is all about in my opinion. You get to tell the world, for a full month, go screw yourself, i’m going to let my brain frolic like a deranged sweater-wearing bunny in a field made of minty evergreen grass. You get to put that imagination to use, sometimes for the first time since grade school recess. And yeah. It’s grade school recess.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

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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 Calm Before the Storm – Minus 2 Days to Nano

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So here we are. A fell wind whistles across the plain. It’s a scary time. I am quaking in my boots. Except i’m actually barefoot in my office listening to the Beatles on my Dan Fogelburg inspired pandora page. And i’m not actually quaking. I’m calm and relaxed and full of happy anticipation. I’ve already set up the scrivener project, i’ve got a bit of outline all roughed out. I’ve got my initial cover done. It’s all over but the shouting.

And boy… there’s enough shouting.

My head has been just running ragged with all of the stuff i want to throw in this little novel. It’s been multiplying rapidly. I’m not sure where i’m going to put all of it but i’m pretty excited. So I think, for this little blog post, i’ll just spend a moment telling you all what i’ll be working on.

The whole thing started when my friends kids asked me if i was a real writer. Here’s the thing about that question. There is no answer. I’m sure if you ever asked Ernest Hemingway if he was a real writer he would look at you boggle eyed, his gin and tonic halfway to his mouth and his eyes widening. ‘Real compared to what, exactly?’ Would most likely be the first thing that crossed his suddenly panicked mind. It was for me. But when you have two children asking that question, it sort of demands some sort of answer. So i said sure. Thankfully, their mom agreed. And then i said i’d write them a book. The events in question might be a little out of order but that’s basically the gist of it.

It’s always best when you find someone to write for. I know a lot of people say they write for themselves and that’s great and all when you’re younger and voiceless and being picked on and you believe (with some very real justification) that no one gives a hoot about your words. But the older you get – i hope – the more you’ll realize that writing works better, and you want to do it better, when you have people you want to write for.

I told them i would write them a story. They would have to come up with the basics of the story. Which is where i’m at right now and that’s another thing i would tell the prospective writers of the world. If someone throws a pitch, swing at it. My first five books – The Meg Brown Mysteries which are now on their sixth book and the seventh was last years nano project – were based on a suggestion from a friend on her way back to California. You never know where this stuff is going to end up and frankly, it takes a bit of the plotting out of your hands and gets your brain working on just HOW you’re going to do it.

Their idea, naturally, consisted of a bunch of characters who just happened to have the names of all their friends. And they suggested that they were all animals. They gave me the types of animals and all the names. They wanted some sort of crime to be solved (which, frankly, i’m still working on. I’m used to murder and violent death which, for a kids novel, is not exactly right on.)

From the bare bones of their ideas came the story of Lola, a young girl and the adventures of her friends Mia who is a Cheetah, Emily a Dolphin, and Ashley A Hawk. I even started writing it in a first chapter but it really didn’t work out well. Who knows? It still may not work out well. I have never written for kids before, but that’s just the thing. It’s a challenge and i’m now really looking forward to the plot and writing this little thing. There’s tons of charming little magic bits in it, pixies, faeries, a whale that lives in a maintenance shed, and a zoo.

It’s going to be fun. And that’s what this is all about. Sure. It’s also about getting the words out and putting that novel on paper but its also about turning off the world for a little while and just enjoying the ripe produce of your own brain.

And here’s the other thing about Nano – it’s gone global. In my auspices of an admin on a Nanowrimo Facebook page i’ve admitted people from all over the world who are participating. So people might whine and cry about the sorry state of literature as a direct response to Nano but to heck with those people. To me, and i’ve said this before, Nano is football. Not American football that requires thousands of dollars just to suit up, but the real European grab-a-ball-and-some-friends sort of football. It’s a november holiday for writers, for doing something a little crazy and a little beautiful and sharing the experience with people all over the world. Are we all going to be published geniuses worshipped for our wit and brilliance? Probably not. But for one month, we brave few – we happy few – get to have a collective breath of literary abandon. We get to shuck off the festering rind of an all too awful world and create the means of that worlds hopeful beautification.

Nano isn’t going to save the world, but here’s the little secret that all nanos know: so many more worlds get saved in November than most people ever know.

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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 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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Editing Sucks But Do It Anyway – Lessons learned along the way part 1.

So it’s been a long long time since posting anything on the old Blog. I’ve been busy with the novel. Very very busy. I’ve read some words of advice from somebody i don’t remember who basically said ‘set a quota of words for the day and stick to it’ so i’ve been doing that. At least 2000 words a day. Sometimes (well, more often than is probably healthy) i stretch that to 3000+ and once i posted up a 5000+ day but that was sort of insane. This has produced quite a good chunk of a novel if i do say so myself.

Not being a professional novelist (yet) i have graciously relied on my friends and family – one friend and one family – to read the output as it goes along to make sure i’m not way off track and to keep my head in the game. This has been working out really well for the most part except for the few occasions where i have been ordered back to the keyboard to produce more words in a day so that they can find out what is happening next.

The one problem i have, and that i am slowly learning to correct, is putting a level of polish on the chapters as they come out and before they get read. I hate hate hate reading something i’ve written that has already been read that could have been just a little better had i spent a little more time with the sander, buffing out the mistakes that could easily have been fixed.

Of course some things aren’t going to come out until the end when i spend an inordinate amount of time and ripped out frustrated hairs trying to get the whole damned thing into publishable form. That said i’ve been finding that if i simply spend a little time reading over and IMMEDIATELY CORRECTING some of the stuff i wrote the day before the process goes much better. In case you didn’t catch that: IMMEDIATELY CORRECTING. Because that’s the other thing i do. I might be in a hurry to get on to the next exciting part and i’ll reread something and make a little mental note to myself, something like: “ehn. that doesn’t really feel right. It needs some seasoning.” Or “gee i really need to expand on that when i rewrite.”

Nuh uh.

Do it NOW! Doing it later is all too often my excuse for not doing it at all. Sure it can be annoying when you’re itching for the next big thing in the plot, but you’ll feel much better about it when your family has looked it over. In fact, you’ll probably feel much better about the next big thing in the plot because you’ve gotten to it clean and neatly without a trail of poorly constructed sentences in your wake.

So that’s my big thing today. Hopefully i will have a few more lessons learned along the way that i can share as this project continues.

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