Thirty Words

IMG_0163This month’s ISWG question: If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be? (examples: fight scene / first kiss scene / death scene / chase scene / first chapter / middle chapter / end chapter, etc.)

Hrm…it all kinda depends if you’re asking about a one-time, specific fix for my current story, or are going for a more general, permanent “wish”.

The answer, either way, is not as easy as you would think.  It’s not easy because it involves admitting publicly the areas in which you struggle.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t actually talk all that about much about the specifics of where I struggle and need to improve.  Oh, I look at those problem areas — all the time — but being as private as I am, I tend to keep such things pretty much to myself.

Still, I’ll take a stab at answering: the opening scene.

Look, I write very character-focused stuff.  More than that, I write stuff focused on characters that are flawed and screwed up, that are broken.  My stories are all about the changes those characters undergo — or don’t undergo, in some cases.  But, starting from that initial point of broken and flawed can offer some real challenges…and one of those is getting the reader involved straight away.

Take Connor, the (anti)hero of Somewhere Peaceful and Silence (and a planned third story).  Put simply, Connor is a street kid — he’s a thief and a conman, a drug addict with no dreams beyond the next score, and the next high that score will buy, and no prospects beyond a very likely early death.

In the opening scene, all of that has to be communicated about Connor…while still making him likable and sympathetic.  Don’t get me wrong, if I can get the reader to give me thirty pages, I know Connor will endear himself…but a new story by an unknown writer doesn’t get thirty pages to hook someone, it gets thirty words.

That ain’t easy…

One of the things I do is study writers I admire.  I study their characters, I study how they share information and details (and how they withhold the same)…I study their plotting, and their pacing…I study their use, or avoidance, of words and wordiness…and I study their openings.  How do they hook the reader?  How do they get you to the next paragraph, and the next page, before you even know who the hell is who in their stories?

I’m not going to list everyone that I’ve tried to learn from here, but I do want to offer one example of what I’m talking about.  Although it is a book I like, it is nowhere near being a true favorite of mine.  But the first line…the first damned line…yeah, that line hooks you:

“The boys came early to the hanging…”*

*”Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, if you’re wondering.

What hanging?  Who is being hung?  Why?  WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?!

One of the reasons why I started doing micro-fiction pieces, in fact, was to tighten up my writing…to try and work on how I hook a reader in just a handful of words.  That really is all you can do as a writer: keep writing.  Oh, you can learn by reading and studying others’ work, but the only way to actually improve is to write.  The only way to get an opening scene right, is to get it wrong twenty times before…

The Sum of All the Parts

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the Month: Besides writing, what other creative outlets do you have?

Pretty easy question this month, you would think, since I’ve talked about this topic a few times before.  Heck, I even spent some time thinking about this topic over the last couple of days, thinking about the points I wanted to make, and even about the structure I wanted to use…
Then my unconscious mind remembered just how random and unprepared I tend to be when I write these posts and … umm … well … my train of thought has never met a track it couldn’t jump.

I started thinking less about creative outlets, and more about breadth of experience and quality of life.  I started thinking about the kinds of things that come into play in my own writing, things like balance and adventure and random wanderlust…

Some of what I thought about, I should say, are other creative outlets.Gdansk 1  In addition to writing, I am also a photographer.  Photography is an outlet that very much influences how I write.  It is fundamental to how I envision and create scenes, and to how I try to write them.  When I visualize my scenes, I very much think in terms of contrast and color, in terms of light and shadow.  It’s more than just visualization, however.  That contrast comes into play in my characters and settings, as well.

Personally, I think anyone who lives and works creatively absolutely needs an outlet different from their primary one.  We need a different way to think, a different way to feel, if we want to truly empower our chosen field.  For me, that other expression is photography…

Train_wreck_at_Montparnasse_1895…and that’s where my train of thought and planning jumped its tracks.  That’s where I started thinking about other things: things like experience, and passion, and the life I’ve lived…

I can’t play music.  I gave up learning the piano when I was 11,* but that doesn’t stop music from being the other major force in my writing.  Without music, in fact, I have no writing.  Without the passion and energy and inspiration it brings, I sit at my keyboard and stare blankly.

*Yes, Mom, you were right back then, I DO regret quitting!

But that’s not all, not by a long shot.  You need more than inspiration and creative outlets, you need life.

I talk and joke about my “other” life in the craft brewing world, but it is a very real thing.  Beyond writing and photography, I have my passion for brewing & cooking…for flavors and textures and combinations.  I describe it to folks, my love of brewing and cooking, as similar to music: it is the process where you can turn a bunch of disparate and unrelated parts into a whole that is far more than just their sum.

Kinda like writing,* in fact.  When everything works, a completed manuscript is so much more than just “characters + plot = story”…

*Imagine that.  Ahem.

But that ain’t it, either, or at least not all of it.  Those things I talked about, they’re are all parts, but they’re not the whole.  You need more than that, I think … you still need life.

Intellectual passions come into the mix, too, of course.  I love history, as well as astronomy, languages and literature.  I love those things, and they all play a vital part in what and how I write.  As do, of course, other influences in my life: the Russian films I admire, and the Japanese philosophies I’ve explored, and the socio-cultural wrongs I see, and the politics I abhor, and … and … and.

I’ve been just about everywhere, by the way.  I’ve lived at the geographical and social extremes of the United States, and I’ve travelled the geographical and social extremes of the world.  I’ve been drunk in some, ahh, questionable bars in Tijuana, and I’ve sat silently in the most beautiful cathedrals and basilicas.  I’ve been overwhelmed by the ruins of Rome, and lived amidst the awesome wonders of Yellowstone.  I’ve transited the Panama Canal, and swum in the Adriatic.  I’ve windsurfed off Spain, and kayaked the Bay of Fundy.  I’ve spent a day in silence at a Buddhist monastery in Japan, and a night reveling amidst the chaos and excess of a rave in Berlin.  I’ve explored the poorest slums of central America, and the grimmest Stalinist apartment blocks in Central Europe … I’ve walked through all of that, then I’ve walked to the mansions and “palaces” that lie just a few miles away…

I have, in short, tried throughout my life to do it all.  I’ve tried, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  And that is all part of what I need to write, as much as are my other creative outlets.

If you take away even one of those things, my writing is less … I am less.  The sum that is my writing, the sum that is me — the two are the same thing, really — is made of all those things.  It is made of them, yet it is more by far than just their sum…

Grumpy Writer

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the Day: What are your favorite and least favorite questions people ask you about your writing?

But…but…but there are so MANY annoying questions!  Quite a few good ones, too, I should add.  But to define the best and worst?  That’ll take some thought…

I guess I have to say my favorite question — the one I’ve talked about far more times than actually had it asked — is “Do your characters talk to you?”

You’re damned right they do.

My characters don’t just “talk” to me, the most powerful and important of them won’t shut the hell up.  Those little ghosts fluttering around the back of my mind, the voices of stories and characters, are always there, always waiting and wanting to be told.  And when I start writing them?  Yeah, those whispers rise to words and shouts…

My characters have to talk to me, by the way, in order to have power and influence and agency within the story I’m trying to tell.  They have to be real.  If my characters and stories are not real to me, if they don’t truly connect with me at a fundamental level, then there’s just no point in writing them.  If I don’t care, why would any reader?

There have been a lot of those failures, by the way.  I have more unfinished/unused story ideas and material than I like to think about. From ones that are just a few scribbled lines about plot and concept, to others that have seen weeks of planning and development, all were abandoned because they didn’t “talk” to me.

Okay, so what about my least favorite question?  What about the one that gives me a headache?  There are a lot of those to choose from: when will it be done?, what’s it about?, can I sit here?

Okay, so those aren’t the worst — they’re pretty freaking normal, actually — but they are situationally annoying.

It’ll be done when it’s damned-well-done, goddammit!  This question is especially bad when asked right after I’ve found a flaw that is going to require a good chunk of rewriting to fix…

Do you really want to know the details of what it’s about?  Or do you want to know what it’s about?  Do I tell you it’s about an exiled god who wants revenge against his brethren?  Or do I tell you how it’s about the cynicism and weariness that comes with getting older amongst younger friends that (seemingly) aren’t?img_0142

And, no, you can’t sit there.  I’m writing, for fuck’s sake, leave me the hell alone!


But the worst?

“What are you working on?”

Creating the history of my setting…

Throwing together a half-drunk blog post…

Fleshing out my plan for the Act II plot…

Editing a story/article proposal so I can, you know, try to get paid

Writing my favorite characer’s death scene…

What are you working on?  What are you doing?  I’m doing what I always do, I’m writing.  Now leave me the hell alone.

Creativity, Expanded

IMG_0163“How has your creative life changed,” the IWSG question o’ the month asks, “since you began writing?”

Wait…since I started writing?

Well, I hit puberty, graduated high school and college, started (and ended) a couple of careers…

Okay, let’s limit that, then.  How about this: since I started writing seriously…since I started writing intentionally.   Yeah, that’ll work a hell of a lot better as a starting point than my years of random, impulsive, and inconsistent dives into it as a hobby.


That’s still a harder one to answer than you might think.  The “expansion” of my creative life into photography and music predates my “serious” writing.*  I still owe those creative outlets to writing, mind you — or, at least, to the creative urges that underlie my writing — but the timing is, umm, complicated.

*Hell, I never could have afforded photography as a writer!  Just to start up, I needed everything I was paid as a (miserably unhappy) sales & marketing monkey…

No, the biggest change to my creative life that I can attribute to serious writing is, well, getting outside of my authorial comfort zone.  Crap, this blog itself is a great example of that.  I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a very private person.  Very private.  I never would have even considered an effort like Seat at the Bar without the lessons I learned, and the benefits I gained, from creative writing. And I certainly would never have come anywhere close to opening myself up with admissions about depression and talk about suicide…

But not even that is the biggest change. Nope, not even close.

No, the biggest change is something I (now) do on a semi-regular basis: microfiction.

Look, you all know — you know because I’ve told you often enough! — that I’m a long-form writer.  Short fiction and I just don’t get along. Oh, we tried to date and get together, but we just couldn’t make it work, so we went our separate ways in the end.  Oh, we would occasionally see each other at parties, but all we’d do is smile awkwardly and move to opposite corners of the room.

Well, since I started writing intentionally and consistently, I…err…well…  Okay, there’s no way around it, no way to sugar-coat it: I started drunk-dialing short fiction from time to time.  Nowadays, when we get together, things are still awkward and uncomfortable, but…ahem…the sex is actually pretty good…

I mean, really, c’mon — I spend three to six months just preparing to write a 125,000-word story, and now I’m posting — publicly, mind you! — 200-500 word pieces I write in under an hour?!

That’s just crazy-talk!

Crazy-talk it might be, but it’s a craziness that actually feels good.  It’s an outlet I never, ever thought I would use…and now I can’t see not spending a couple of hours a week on flash-fiction.  That is so far outside of any comfort-zone I’ve ever had, that I’m still not sure it’s entirely sane…

Shit, even when I was pretending* to be an extrovert during my sales career, I wasn’t this far outside of what is normal and natural for me!sticker,375x360-bg,ffffff.u5

*Fake it ‘til you make it!

And I owe it to the confidence and comfort I gained from writing.  It doesn’t get any better than that.