How Do You Choose?

Random writing, today.

I’m working on the fantasy series I want to write.  Unfortunately, the series I have in my mind is…well…it’s at least two different series.  Two different ones, but both do I want to write.  Both have characters I like, and stories I believe in.

How do you choose?

The worst torture the Romans could ever dish out was simple: line up the entire the family, then ask the father which child lived and which died.  The father always gave the Romans whatever they wanted.

So, for me, which story lives, and which dies?  Into which story do I plunge the dagger?

Okay, so no story every really dies…but putting one off for a couple of years (at the minimum) feels a whole lot like killing it…

Like that father, how do you choose?

No, really, how do you choose?

The story not of the young kid who wields a magic sword to become king, but rather the story of the sword so dedicated that he seeks out the last survivor of “his” family…

Or the story of the bitter immortal — the “angel” exiled for his part in the lost war in heaven — who wants nothing more than the grey numbness of oblivion…

I love Connor and Oz.  Err…well…Connor is a great character, and a great narrator, but it is Oz who I actually love.  It is Oz who is my favorite character.  But their time is coming to a close.  Once their third story is written, that’s it.

Hell, if I’m honest, there never should have been more than one.  Somewhere Peaceful to Die was written to have no sequel…but I couldn’t let those characters go.  The Silence That Never Comes and The Flicker of Ghosts came (are coming) because I couldn’t let go of those two characters.  But the time has come to finally let go…

So what fills the blank?  The stories of devotion and innocence that drove my youth?  My take on the Belgariad and the Chronicles of Amber and the Lord of the Rings?  Or…

Or…

Or, a more deeply personal tale?  A tale built on experience and reality?  A tale of a weary life lived among those far younger?  A tale of bitterness and loss amidst the joys and innocence of youth…?

It would help, of course, if one had a character that stood out more for me than the other…but both call to me:

Finntan’s hope, the innocence of his life, and the dedication of the magic items that dedicate themselves to him…

Versus the world weary insouciance of Runae…versus the concept of the once-great wanting nothing more than the forgetfulness of death…

How do you pick which child lives and which dies?

How do you choose between the hope and love that you wish the world was, and the bitter pain that you know the world actually is?

I tried conflating them, I really did.

Yeah, it was worse than you think it was.

Those two cannot be combined.  Not in any way.  I tell either Finntan’s story, or I tell Runae’s.  I can’t combine the two…not any more than I can plan out to a third series!

*sigh*

This is why, of course, writers get paid the…ahem…small bucks.

If I had wanted to get rich, I would’ve been a plumber.

Musical Note — the song below is one I love. It is a song that has not specifically been a part of anything I’ve conceived or written, but rather has elements that touch on everything I’ve written (not to mention having the best song line ever: “If you’ve never stared off into the distance / Then your life Is a shame”)…

Soundtracks And Music To Write By

6A5072FE-4223-43BE-9690-BB8282C350BDIf history is a major influence on what I write, alongside philosophy and literature, then music is the catalyst that actually gets everything going. Music influences — and in some cases even shapes — the words I write. And I mean everything I write. Even the posts on this blog are shaped and focused by what I am listening to at the time (for the record, I’m listening to Mumford & Sons’ The Road to Red Rocks live album as I type this).

I’ve mentioned before that the very first thing I write for any story is the final scene. That final scene gives the story shape and focus by giving me an end-point to work towards. It also helps to define the emotional tone and message of the story itself. For Somewhere Peaceful, that means I wrote the final scene of tragedy and loss even before I wrote the words to get folks there…and that process defined the (sad and bitter) tone and mood of the story.

But how did music play a role?

Well, like the writing process for the scene I described in this previous post, that concluding scene had a “soundtrack” to it…a soundtrack that, through that initial creation process, shaped the entire damned story.*

*If you’re wondering, the two key songs for that final scene are “Ghosts That We Knew” by Mumford & Sons and “Be Still” by The Fray. Both songs, by the way, still have the power to evoke all the emotion and loss and pain that went into creating that scene every single time I hear them…

Over time, the soundtrack for Somewhere Peaceful to Die grew. It grew by songs and bands; it grew by genres and styles; it grew until it was well over a hundred songs and a dozen artists. Somewhere Peaceful’s soundtrack led directly into the one for Silence, but for that second story the music has changed…it has changed a great deal. It had to change. Even as my protagonist changed and grew, so too did the soundtrack have to. And it will continue to change, I know that. The music is a reflection of both myself (as the writer) and of Connor, so of course it has to change…

But The Silence That Never Comes is not the only story I’m writing. Nope, I’m also starting the conception and background work for Once Magnificent. Not just a different genre (fantasy versus sci-fi), that story will also have a very different tone and focus from Connor’s stories.

But I don’t have a soundtrack for it. Not yet, anyway.

Crap, I can’t write without a soundtrack!

Oh, all the work I’ll do as part of the background and prep will help, especially the work to “get to know” my characters, but I still don’t have that “one song.” Not in the way Ghosts That We Knew is the “one song” for all of the stories about Connor & Oz.

On the other hand, the quest for music is fun…almost as fun as the writing itself. I love music*…more than almost anything else, I live for music. I need music to listen to just as much as I need books to read, so the prospect of doing a few hours of “shopping” through the iTunes store excites me as much as the chance to browse the shelves of a good book store…

*I took piano lessons as a kid. When I decided to quit, my mom told me, “You’ll regret it later!” Holy shit, was she ever right. I regret stopping those lessons more than I can even begin to describe. Yep, Mom was right…again. *sigh*

0465BAE2-CB70-4D05-A832-7ACD2787E9F1I am, by the way, always shopping for new music…so any and all suggestions are welcome!

Living in Yellowstone last year introduced me to a dozen new bands that I have come to love, but I’m not up there this year. Instead, I’m hoping other folks will come forward with ideas for new stuff to help me out…

Once Magnificent is a story about nostalgia and growing old. It’s about watching your place in the world disappear, even as you fight to hold on to everything you once had. So…err…think about that, then suggest away!

Pen Names For The Win

Okay…so you’ve decided to take up your pen and start Writing for Fun & Profit*, but you have questions.

*Err…not Trademarked because, well, no one in their right mind believes there is much in the way of “profit” in writing…

Honestly, when I talk to folks about writing, I tend to get the same questions…over and over.  Here is what that generally looks like:

“Do your characters talk to you?” — Yes.  Yes, they do.  They make fun of me, too…all the damned time.    {Shut up, Oz!}

“How do you come up with your ideas?” — Beer.

“What’s the best way to write convincing dialogue?” — Read your stuff out loud.  When you read out loud, especially dialogue, you better understand the rhythm, pacing and problem areas.

“How do you deal with writer’s block?” — More beer.  Or, for the really acute cases, scotch.

“What advice would you give aspiring, new writers?” — Walmart offers benefits.

“How much money did you get in advance?” — What’s an advance?  For that matter, what’s this money thing you speak of?

Okay, okay, I admit it — I may be a wee bit cynical and irritable today.

Let’s go to one of the few questions that doesn’t give me (as much) room for sarcasm:

“Should I use a pen name when I write?” — I do.

**Sarcasm alert!**  Of course you should use a pen name*!  Do you really want anyone to know that you chose to do this for a living?  If ever I go to a high school reunion (not freaking likely, by the way), I’m pretty sure I’ll tell folks I’m the cleanup boy in an adult bookstore before I admit to being a writer…

*It’s interesting, by the way, that my spellcheck system likes to correct “pen name” to “penance”.  Is the Universe trying to tell me something?

Now, look, if you’re using a pen name to hide who you are — from, say, the mob, or the IRS (same thing), or the court system, or student debt collectors — don’t bother.  The courts and the mob will just call the student debt people, and there is NO hiding from those assholes.

If, however, you have legitimate reasons — or even semi-legitimate — then have at it, I say.

Look, I use a pen name for a couple of reasons…reasons I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before…

The DockRat series is sci-fi.  Not just that, it’s a series with a very specific tone and feeling to it.  It is, when you get right down to it, bitter, angry, pained…and personal as all hell.  I’ve mentioned before that Oz represents, in many ways, those friends I’ve lost to suicide; that, of course, means that I’m writing with…well…baggage.

I prefer to keep my baggage semi-anonymous, thank you very much.

Alright, so that’s the personal part of it.  The personal, by the way, is the less important part.  The more important part?  That’s simple: I’m a former Marketing & Sales monkey.Chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriter

Besides being the main reason why I’m drinking scotch at this particular moment, that former career also left a legacy of knowledge and awareness.  Specifically, that worst and most abused of marketing-knowledge: Brand Identity.

The only people who get pigeon-holed and type-cast worse than actors are writers.  I’ve been beyond-addicted to sci-fi and fantasy since…well…let’s not get into just how long…and still I can count on one hand the “names” who succeeded commercially at both sci-fi and fantasy.

Honestly, when folks check out the aisles at the local bookstore — or (far more often) the categories on Amazon — they look for names they know.  And not just know, but know are good at the genre/story for which they are looking.  They look for the brand, in marketing-speakthat oh-so-important confluence of author and genre and reputation.

I am, by the way, as guilty of this as anyone else: I know the writing team known as “James S.A. Corey” is good at writing sci-fi, but what if they came out with a fantasy story?  Yeah, I’d probably wait to buy it.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one genre.  I already have a story series in mind for when DockRat is done, and it’s completely different.  Not just different in genre — fantasy versus sci-fi — but different in tone and voice and message, as well.  As you probably guessed, that series will “live” under a different pen name than does DockRat.

When you get right down to it, Connor & Oz are unique to their setting, and to their stories.  And I refuse to have the other stories I want to write be judged by the “reputation” of two drug-addicted, criminal characters — much as I love them.

Dreams And A Blank Page

I’ve mentioned a few times my belief that the “next story” is always better.  The field is wide open, the possibilities endless, and the lessons learned from writing the last story still (theoretically) fresh in your mind.

IMG_0728That blank sheet of paper is an exciting prospect to a writer.  The best comparison I can offer is that feeling when, standing on top of a ridge, I look down over a place I’ve never seen or hiked…a fresh place, untrailed, unexplored, and empty.  A place of infinite possibilities.

It’s not mine, not yet.  No, it’s not mine until I have hiked it, until I have learned the lay of the land.

Just like the next story.

It’s not mine until I frame it and prep it, until I’ve explored it’s depths and breadth.  Until I know the story and the characters like I know that no-longer-fresh valley…

Even as I write Silence — slowly…oh so slowly…and oh so behind schedule* — I am starting to prep and work through the initial legwork for the “next” story.  It’s fresh, it’s new, and it very much provides a nice contrast…

*Douglas Adams’ brilliant comment on deadlines: “I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Writing Connor’s story gives me an outlet, and a flow of words and thoughts that touch the darker areas of my mind and spirit.  But you can only be dark and gritty for so long.  The world is not a paradise, nor a particularly friendly place, but acknowledging and dwelling in the dark places can be a tough weight to bear if that is all you have.  And believe me, that weight can become too much: in writing Wrath, the dark was all I had.  I won’t repeat that.

So, although I’m still writing in the dark, I let in the sun in other ways…

My hiking and camping I have mentioned before.  Without that outlet, the dark would threaten to engulf completely.  But, beyond that, letting in the sun comes down to that simplest of things — it comes down to dreaming.

It comes down to blank paper, and a whole new world.  New characters, new problems, and new tone.  New possibilities…and new stories that I want to make mine.

I have no story, not yet.  I have a world, and some dynamics and inspiration to play with.  I have a handful of (potential) characters, and hints of the context and history that will eventually give rise to the story itself.

I have dreams…  No, that’s not it, not exactly.  I have new dreams…new dreams and blank paper.

No matter what has happened before, no matter what happens now, the next story is always better.  And, for a writer, is there a better dream than that?