Dancing Ghosts and The Next Story

Remember when I talked about the ghosts of ideas fluttering around? Yeah, those keep fluttering…and talking and distracting. Not as bad, or as loud, as Connor and Oz were, but they do sometimes like to jump up and down, dance around and draw notice.

There are times a scene comes to you, one that connects and works. When that scene is part of the story you are currently working on, things work out quite nicely. You get it written down and then decide where it fits in the story. In my file for this story I already have half-a-dozen such snippets saved and ready.

But what happens when that scene is for something totally different? What if it’s for a story you haven’t prepped, haven’t worked on, haven’t even really thought about?

You write the scene…obviously!

Last night(ish) a scene like that came to mind. A scene helping to define two main characters, and a key moment they share, for a MG/YA fantasy story that’s been fluttering around with the other ghosts for a while now.

So, instead of working on finalizing my plot and pushing the process along for the current story, I just spent the morning writing a scene for a story I’m not sure I’m even going to write!

*sigh*

By the way, this is how Connor and Oz started…by intruding on other stuff I was supposed to be working on. And I’m starting to think these two new characters* might start to follow the same path and take on a life of their own…remember the next story is always better!

*Three MCs for the story, actually, but the third wasn’t part of this scene.

Plot…plot…plot

Harrumph.

Can you guess what I’m working on?

The good thing about writing a sequel is that the protagonist is already pretty well set, both in outlook and in voice (there are changes in Connor, however…a lot of changes). There is, however, a whole new setting, a whole new dynamic, and a whole new set of conflicts and antagonists…and that makes it fun.

Taking all the ideas and subplots and subtexts swirling in my head and turning them into a plot both engaging and useable is, err, challenging. I’ve mentioned before, I am not one of those people who sees the entire plot for a story first, then fills in all the details. I see the characters and the details, then build the structure of a plot.

I know, I know…that’s a bit like buying a Christmas tree to support and fit all of the ornaments and lights in the basement, rather than buying a tree and just pulling out what will fit it. But, hey, that’s the way I do it…and I have a shit-ton of ornaments and lights that need somewhere to hang!

There is a great deal I want to cover in this new story. Wrath & Tears was intimate and personal to Connor and Oz. This next story will still be intimately about Connor, but will be taking him into a world and a society bigger and more far-reaching than just dockside. The plot has to reflect that while still following him on the personal journey he needs to, essentially, save him from himself.

It also has to let me develop and communicate the themes that are at the heart of the story…and that ain’t as easy as it sounds (at least not to me).

How do I do that? I explore. A lot. I write (handwrite, actually) several summaries and experiments on the major arcs I want to cover, each time incorporating more and more info from the previous versions until everything starts to hang together. It’s a very iterative process, one that evolves and changes a great deal as I pretty much continually adjust the crises and characters/entities involved.

To me, this method is kinda fun. I get to experiment with different ways of screwing over my characters, as well as different ways of them screwing themselves. I also start to see possibilities and convolutions in the characters that I hadn’t necessarily considered. That’s even more fun!

At any rate, after the last major plot summaries are written (one for the major, overall plot-arc and one for each of the major subplots), I finally get to breathe. The writing of the actual story starts to look much more real to me. When all I have is a semi-amorphous, undefined cloud of ideas and conflicts, that story looks awful far away. When that cloud resolves itself into something intelligible, it’s no longer pushing a Sisyphean boulder up the hill, it’s taking the last steps to hit the summit.

I’m at that point…sorta. I need a few days to nail down the subplot summaries, then I hit the top. Hopefully by the middle of next week. And after that? After that it is finalizing the characters (how I do that is a topic for another post) and creating the initial outline/scene-list.

If things go well, I should be out of the prep-work weeds and writing the story itself sometime around Christmas or New Years. Sooo…I’m right on schedule with my original three-month timeline for this process of planning and prep.

I know, I know…I said I wanted to do it quicker, start the writing sooner. Unfortunately, the administrative/logical/planning side of me knows the creative/slacker side all too damn well…

Be Honest

I had another post queued up for today, but it’s one I’m not sure I’ll ever actually post. I wrote it when I was (more than) half in the bag, and all the way depressed. Maybe I’ll keep that one to myself.

But…that means I need to get something put together to go up today. Err, tomorrow actually…I’m writing this the night before Thanksgiving, before it’s time to start the cooking, drinking and aggressive couch-sitting.

Just enough time for a random, squirrel-driven thought then…

Nerds.

Err, that’s me actually.

I can recite every Star Trek episode by heart…I play video games…I read (and write) sci-fi and fantasy…I, err, own manga and watch anime…

Yup, seriously a nerd.

As a kid, I hid my nerditude. Now I embrace it as an important part of who I am.

Of course, it took living a decidedly un-nerdly life for many years to help me accept that part of myself.

So what parts of your characters are they trying to hide from themselves? Hell, what parts are they hiding from you? That’s the interesting stuff, that’s the heart of the character. And it’s hard as hell to pull off, just like it’s hard as hell to trust your characters to speak for themselves.

As a writer, you’ve presumably (I hope) accepted those embarrassing parts of yourself, and those dark corners in your soul. That’s what should fuel your creativity. You don’t have to like yourself, you just have to be honest with yourself. But if you’ve done that with yourself, have you done it with your characters?

Do you know who they really are?

Roger Zelazny once advised that a writer should write a background scene for each major character, a scene that had nothing to do with the story. A scene from an important incident or moment in their past, a scene that defined who they were.

Give it a try.

Don’t make it serve the plot, don’t make it serve preconditions or predefined ideas. Let your character be honest and open and tell the story themselves. Most importantly, no one but you will ever read it (probably), so be as raw and unfiltered as you like. This is not the time for polishing and perfection, it is the time for honesty and emotion that connects.

You will learn something about your character, believe me. That something may just give you more depth to work with, or that something may even change the story you’re writing. Either way, both you and your character win.

And, yes, doing this exercise is where the major, horrifying incident in Connor’s past came from. That incident changed the character in fundamental ways that I’m still exploring, but also deepened him (at least to me) and forced me to adapt certain elements of the story itself.

This Space for Rent

Okay, so I’m fighting to fill the space today…and not fighting all that well, to be honest.

I do have Friday’s post all set. I think. It’s one that’s finished but has been on hold for damn near two weeks, and I’m still vacillating about posting it. So maybe I don’t have Friday’s written after all…

At any rate, back to today. Shit, where’s a squirrel moment when I need one?! At least a random derailing of my thoughts might provide something entertaining!

How ’bout this?

What do you when you don’t feel like writing? Or when the words & thoughts just won’t come?

That’s actually not a bad question. Damn, I surprise even myself sometimes.

We’ve all had those days: you get up, do your regular shit, then sit down to get some work done. And you can’t focus, or the words won’t come, or you struggle to complete even the simplest of thoughts.

Or, even worse, you have one of those days where you can’t even muster the energy or interest to sit down and work at all.

Yeah, those days suck.

We all have ’em…even those who say they don’t. For me, those days happen (mostly) when I’m doing the prep work for a story. I really do love to explore the characters and worlds I am creating, but it doesn’t have the driving and all-consuming focus and passion that comes with actually writing. I spend less time working and a great deal more time screwing around…err, researching.

When all that prep is done, however, you can’t keep me away from the work. The rest of the world can go fuck itself, I have a story to write!

*sigh*

Not today, however. Today is a problem.

The best advice I’ve read on this came from Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club and other books) via the writing site LitReactor. In one of his columns/pieces, Chuck talked about those days where you don’t want to write. His advice was to use an egg timer. No, really, a timer. Or something else to similarly define a space of time (I loved his clothes dryer idea).

However you’re measuring the time, you make yourself sit down and work for an hour(ish). No matter what. The worst case? You spent an hour writing. You paid your bail, now you can go outside and play.

The best case? You get into the flow and you turn out something worthwhile…and you keep working.

That happened to me today. I gave myself an album of time (yes, that’s how I measure writing time) in which to work on the details of setting and background that I had to have, but really didn’t get me excited to work.

Funny thing is? It worked. I wrote for an album. Then for another. I got into it…more importantly, I answered some questions that were still hanging around and gave myself some interesting options to explore in terms of tone and setting.

Now go away…I have more work to do.

And I think I have a serious man-crush on Chuck Palahniuk.

The Scratching of a Pen

I talked a while back about the actual tools of writing.  Stay with me on this, the topic isn’t as pedantic and pointless as it sounds…err, I hope.

Hey, give me a break, I’m still on my first cup of coffee!

I’ve said many times to friends and family alike that “I think with my pen.”  The reality is probably better said as “I think with words.”  To really work through them, I have to record my thoughts somehow.  Just the act of doing so is often enough to get the chaos of thoughts and ideas and emotions straight in my head.  Even with the background stuff for the stories I write, I seldom have to go back and revisit*: I thought through the material as I wrote it, and it is now (generally) clear in my head.

*I’m talking about basic background info and theories/themes, not character and plot details…those I do revisit.  Often.

But how does that tie to the tools of writing?  It’s not convenience, and it’s not access.  No, instead it has far more to do with speed.  Speed of recording, but also speed of thought.

I type fast.  Very fast, actually.  Hey – you hear that mom and dad?  All those computer games and chat rooms when I was young actually did something.  Yeehaw!

At any rate, I type fast enough to keep pace with my thoughts…mostly.

But when I type, I’m putting words on the page as fast as the thoughts are taking shape.  There’s very little filter between brain and screen.  That’s one reason why I plan and outline my scenes before I write them: when I don’t, when I go pure stream-of-consciousness, it is far too easy to go squirrel-chasing…an event you may have seen on this here imitation pseudo-blog.

When I know what I want to write, however, and I have a goal and a theme to work with, I love typing.  When I type, I can write a lot…I think my record is a shade over 5,000 words in a day.  I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s a full-on metric shit-ton in my world.

But when I’m exploring?  Things have to slow down.  I need time and space between thought and word…I need the slow scratching of a pen on paper.  Aside from the fact that I love to actually, physically write, it is also the best way to consider and weigh and evolve the ideas as they come to fruition.

The idea behind this post came about because I am working on background material as we, err, speak.  I am writing the background material for DockRat 2, and exploring the thoughts and needs as I go.  Doing things like that by hand gives me more time to spend on those ideas, and more opportunity to develop and evolve them.

It’s still possible to go wandering off in strange and random directions, but since my thoughts are generally well ahead of my pen those squirrel-moments are less pointlessly random and more considered and effective.

Now there are downsides to the pen & paper thing, don’t get me wrong.  In a single session I can get a max of about 1,500 words put down.  After that my hand is a wreck…as is my brain (which ain’t all that unusual for me, I have to admit).

The other hard part, the other downside of the slower pace, is that the ‘filter’ sometimes gets clogged.  If and when I reread what I wrote, it’s a good bet that I unconsciously missed/skipped a few words here and there.  Usually it’s the small ones, as my hand struggles to keep up, but there have been times when I’ve had to decipher just what the hell I was talking about in certain sentences.

Editing is also something I split between on-screen and on-paper.  The first couple of passes are purely electronic.  It’s faster, and I don’t have to do all that annoying, clunky typing-in of hand edits.  But the last pass or two is (generally) on paper.  I want to really see and feel the words, in a way that my computer or iPad screen just can’t communicate, and I want that filter to be back in place between brain and paper.

So, the point of this whole exercise: the tools and the manner of writing do matter.  Every writing session has to have a point, both in what you create and in how you create it.  What are you going for?  Adjust how you work to fit that and you’ll be one huge step ahead.

Oh, and for those writers who came before and hand wrote their manuscripts from start to finish, I have nothing but love and awe!

Get Off My Lawn!

I’m growing a beard right now, and it’s driving me nuts. I hate the stupid thing like the plague it is, but I made a deal to give it a try (otherwise known as “losing a bet”), so I’m stuck a while longer. Of course, now that I have this stupid furry animal attached to my face, I’m beginning to notice just how many people around me are also bearded. Especially at the brewery.

That’s disturbing.

What if “my” brewery is turning into a hotbed hangout for lumberjacks and hipsters? I live in fear.

Wait…holy shit…what would that make me? Great, now I live in even more fear!

Or am I just being a judgmental asshole? Yes, like all guys getting older, I am far more quick to judge and criticize (some things) than ever I used to be. Especially books.

I like to sell to myself that I’m just more discerning and refined*, that I’m better at being choosy. When I was a kid, however, I would read anything you stuck under my nose. Anything. That habit exposed me to some fantastic stuff, but also to some shit that almost burned the eyes out of my face.

*Refined? Really?! I sit here in beat-up cargo shorts and flipflops and talk about being refined?

There are times I really wish I could still be that kid, that I could still accept and enjoy whatever comes my way. I just can’t. To my great chagrin – and in spite of my every effort to the contrary – I grew up. I even understand Shakespeare now, and you have no idea how big an accomplishment that is for me!

When I was young I wrote stories (never shared) about powerful heroes and their inevitable victories. Now I write about a thief and a prostitute. Or, put another way, I once wrote about how people understood and trusted each other…now I write about how much we like to fuck each other over.

Growing up sucks.

In some ways, I want to rediscover that sense of wonder, and that trust in the author of whatever it is I am reading. In other ways, of course, I want the authors to earn that trust. I want characters I can believe and get into. I want settings that make sense, that live and breathe, rather than just ‘film sets’ that are skin deep (if you’ve never been on a film set, it looks nothing in real life like what you see on the screen). And don’t get me started on plot holes – for a character-driven guy like me to get pissed at a plot hole, it has to be roughly big enough to drive the moon through.

Sadly, that ‘growing up’ thing means I see the problems I used to just skip over (I’m looking at you ‘new’ Star Wars movie!). I see all the shortcuts and bad ideas, and even the good ideas never developed or expanded. What especially drives me nuts is when I see authors treating the reader like some idiot child with even less common sense than maturity.

Don’t patronize me. Don’t condescend to me. Just write, and let me connect my own fucking dots! You certainly don’t need to explain every single damn thing in excruciating detail. Your readers are (hopefully) smart enough to make the inferences you want, and see through the subtlety enough to keep up with you. If you treat them like they aren’t, they’re going to get bored and walk away*.

*And yes, I’m writing this post as much to remind me as anyone else!

As a kid I finished every book I started, whether good or bad. Lately, I’ve walked away from more books than I can count. Imagine reading Bonfire of the Vanities and having some random character inserted just to explain all of the satire and social criticism as it was happening. No. Just…no.

That make sense?

Then, for the love of God and the miracle of beer, please stop doing it in your own stories!!

Recycling, and the Redemption of a Character

One of my big failures in Wrath & Tears was with Nat: she had a lot of potential as a character, especially as a note of dissonance in Connor’s world, but I never did right by her. I never developed the character the way I should have, as an individual. She was, to my shame, a servant of the plot…and of the real story about Connor and Oz.

I thought, even after I decided to start looking at doing a sequel, that she had been a one-time character; someone necessary to draw Connor (and by extension Oz) out of stasis and into action and conflict.

Oh, was I wrong.

She is more. Very much is she more.

I was sitting here doing some notes and thoughts on how Connor had changed between stories to help me get things moving from his POV when an urge struck me to look at Nat again.img_0014

*Insert evil laugh here*

I have certain themes and ideas I want to develop in this new story, but I wasn’t quite sure how I would introduce them. That just changed…thanks Nat!

I love it when a plan (or lack thereof) comes together!

Now I just need to spend…oh, I don’t know…countless hours of work to figure out how to pull this off! Shit, life would be so much easier if I hadn’t made the commitment to have every single word of Connor’s stories come from his POV…

Influences, and the Books That Mattered

If you write, you read. A lot. I’m sure there’s someone out there who violates that tenet, but I have no idea who that may be. What I got to thinking about – or at least wanting to spout off about – was what people read.

Now, by definition, a blog is not really an interactive forum. Oh, comments can be a conversation (I take part as a “commenter” on a few blogs myself), but the primary message is a one-way street. That means this gets to be a soliloquy on what I read. Which is as it should be…what I read is the only thing that matters in the universe!

Ahem…

For me, there are several different “kinds” of reading…and, yes, I can complicate anything. Want to hear my recipe for scrambled eggs? It takes an hour and a half…

Can you tell I’m neither serious nor focused today? Yep…I’m writing in the brewery. My liver forgives me so you have to as well.

At any rate, reading “types”: pleasure, education, research and…umm…other.

I have three books going at any given time, generally covering three of those four options (and, no, other is not as dirty as it sounds). As of today, I am reading Alison Weir’s Henry VIII for education, James Corey’s Leviathan Wakes for a combination of pleasure and research (on how other sci-fi writers write), and Tomas Asbridge’s The Greatest Knight in the other category…in this case for some some low-intensity thought-provocation for some fantasy stuff I want to (eventually) write.

What really got me started on this post, however, was looking back at the books & series that “started it all”. The more intellectual and more current influences are a subject for later.  For now the focus is on what started the love of reading…and, more importantly, the love of story-telling. That’s what we are: story-tellers. A thousand years ago we would have sung our songs by the hearth, but today we write…or sing, or paint, or make movies.

So what started that love of stories in my little corner of the universe? Fantasy. Yep, my roots are in fantasy…and my heart as well. The sci-fi I’ve been working on is, first and foremost, because of the characters involved. The two characters you know – or should know, anyway: Connor and Oz*. The loudest of all the ghosts, and the ones that took over – and still have control of – my imagination and my brain.

*On a side note: one of my beta readers is still mad at me for the end of Wrath & Tears:
“How are you going to work Oz into the sequel?” he asked.
“Err, he’s dead,” I answered.
“Fuck you.”

It’s a glamorous life, I tell you.

Crap…SQUIRREL!

Okay, back to the very first series I remember reading:

Chronicles of Narnia & Lord of the Rings – c’mon, who didn’t start with these two first?!
Chronicles of Prydain – you don’t hear much about these anymore, but I loved ’em as a kid
Chronicles of Amber – the last of the four I got into, but the first “grown-up” books I read (in the 6th grade)…it also kicked-off my fascination with Zelazny, and my obsession to read everything he ever wrote

Now, as for sci-fi…that came a couple of years later, but the early influences still stand out in my mind (these aren’t really in order as I don’t actually remember the order I read them in. Shit, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast!):

Downbelow Station – CJ Cherryh could write a menu and I’d read it…
Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula LeGuin. ‘Nuff said.
War With the Newts – a bit off the beaten track but stay with me on this one: we had a family friend who was an English Prof specializing in sci-fi at UofM, and he gave this to me to read – it was, and still is, a lesson that you can write a story that says something
The Hyperion series – original and strong at a time when a lot of the sci-fi coming out was pure schlock
The Forever War – oh yeah…more learning about the fact that a story isn’t necessarily about what it is about
Phillip K. Dick – just anything, and everything. Sci-fi wouldn’t exist in Hollywood if it weren’t for him…aren’t something like 99% of sci-fi movies based on his stories?

On the other hand, the older I get (and the more experienced) the more I find that not all the books I loved twenty or thirty years ago still rise to the same level. Stuff like Mote in God’s Eye, the Foundation series…writers like Heinlein and Benford (an old professor of mine back at UCI!!) and Niven are still very good and enjoyable, but they no longer stick with me in the way they once did.

On that note, I do want to give very serious Honorable Mentions to two fantasy series/writers that each had their flaws, but still did stuff that made a huge difference to me (and that I still enjoy):

The Belgariad by David Eddings – no, it’s not War & Peace, but Christ Almighty did he and Leigh (his wife and writing partner) create characters that quickly earned a place in your heart – for a light, easy read to get someone started in fantasy you cannot go wrong here (I still love an early description of Garion as a “sandy-haired cloud of doom”)

And…okay…I’ll talk about the 800-pound gorilla*: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. I love this series. I love the characters…I love the vibrancy…I love the sheer insanity of the detail…but for the love all that’s holy, that man needed someone to stand athwart the subplots and yell “No more!”  I might be a wordy bastard, but Jordan had entire books in this series that could (and arguably should) have been cut completely.

*No, really, if you get the whole thing in hardcover it literally weighs like 800 pounds!

Okay…speaking of wordy…that’s enough for now. I was going to touch on literature and history and modern stuff but, well, I’m at 1,000 words already. We’ll save the rest, I think, for another day…

Lifting the Fog

As a note – I’m not touching the election results.  No sir, no way, not interested. I played poker with friends, ate chili and got drunk last Tuesday night…you know, the important things in life.

This is something of a continuation of Monday’s post…mostly because I left that thought (very) unfinished. Oh, not in concept – characters and people are still the genesis of pretty much every story I can picture – but rather in what follows immediately after.

Those writers/dreamers who have ideas that manifest in terms of plot are, in some ways, a step ahead. They already have an idea of what needs to happen, and of what dynamics are in play, and can “fill in the blanks” around that proto-plot {random edit thought – why the fuck does spellcheck deny “proto” as legitimate?! Gah!!}. Character folks – and those who see settings first – get to wrestle with making everything fit neatly together…or not-so-neatly, depending on who you like to read.

I’m hip-deep in background material for the next story (yes, there’s a probable title and no, I won’t share it yet…call it “DockRat 2” for now), so I’m thinking of all the little things I have to do before a story really starts to come together for me. I’m not talking about the level of detail I need to write a scene (or even plan one), but the background material that helps define the world the characters inhabit. To be honest, this process really helps me to finalize the story itself: as I take barebones thoughts and work through them to put some meat on those bones, the socio-economic and political dynamics that define the world in question begin to take on a life and depth of their own.

Those dynamics are important – those dynamics help create the details of the plot. As an example: it wasn’t until I worked through what dockside was really like that I understood the powerful role the Families played therein.

What I am defining right now for Connor’s “new” world (nope, not on dockside again…at least not yet) is how the various levels of society – from the rich elites to the bottom-of-the-barrel – interact and function, both in social terms and in terms of the economy. Throw in mega-corporations, government bureaucrats, criminal syndicates, and people just trying to get on with their lives and all of a sudden the fog starts to lift and I see opportunities I hadn’t thought much about before.

I can’t tell you how important it is to spend enough time (maybe not as much as I do…but at least a day or two) thinking about the unwritten dynamics of your world. How do the minor and background characters function? What drives them?  What are their everyday needs? Why are things the way you as the writer chose to make them? Doing this step correctly helps to see complexities and realities you might not  otherwise have considered…and to bring in elements you might not previously have so much as seen.

On a related note – that tone your idea had when you first dreamed it up? That’s vital to this part of the process. If I were going for optimistic and utopian in this story, the planet and its population would be vastly different. I am, however, going for a darker and more gritty feeling, and that colors everything I create as I work through the process. And that, in all honesty, is the way it needs to be.  Screw this part up and you end up with all of the ruthlessness and violence of Game of Thrones set in the innocence of Narnia…

And don’t even get me started on identifying the root society and language from which everything else descends.  For me – as a linguist and historian – identifying and defining that is huge…and also probably is a post in and of itself.

Too Many Drinks Left on the Bar

When someone important dies in my world (the real one, not the ones I make up) we leave a drink at the end of the bar in his or her honor. Important means nothing like rich or famous or powerful. Important means someone who mattered: friends and loved ones.

Often we’ll honor those friends and comrades who never made it back from foreign lands. This Friday we’ll do that again for Veteran’s Day. I know a few who never made it back, and quite a few more who made it back but a left a piece of themselves behind.

As small as it sounds, that honor works because it is personal. It’s not trite words and generic symbols, it is a toast to the lost.

I had originally planned to write a Veteran’s Day post specifically on this topic, a post honoring those who never returned. I still want to do that post, but…after.

After I say the rest.

After I mourn.

Many times we honor someone all-but anonymous in the grand scheme of things, but someone important nonetheless.

I lost a friend this past weekend. Someone young and strong, someone with a great deal of life ahead of him still.

I sit here, fat and drunk and way past my expiration date, yet my friend died and left behind a beautiful wife and a pair of young kids who still need their father.

It’s not fair.

But it’s another drink at the end of the bar.

You didn’t know him, but raise a glass to him anyway. He mattered. Mattered to his family, to his friends, and to me…and I’m sick to hell of leaving drinks at the end of the bar.