A Dingo Ate My Baby

It’s getting into late June…

Holy crap.

I’m not sure I believe that.

How the hell did it get be to be late June already?!

By the end of this month, I am “supposed” to be at least halfway through the first draft of Silence.

Err…

I think I need to dust off some of those old excuses I used way back in college. “I’m sorry, professor, but there was this baby, you see. And a pack of dingos. There were definitely dingos…”

Yeah, my professors never bought it either.

The hard part isn’t inspiration: Yellowstone is not short on that particular commodity. Electricity and good wi-fi? Those are problems, but inspiration is pretty much everywhere.

No, the problem is the right inspiration – and the right environment. For someone who grew very used to writing in the taproom of a brewery, adjusting to “writing on the go” while surrounded by mountains, trees, vicious bears and a supervolcano that is – quite literally – right under my feet is something of a challenge.

I’m essentially at the 35% mark. So much for schedules and planning…

On the other hand, I do now know just what bison smell like up close, so I’ve got that going for me.

The worst part is that I am writing…I’m just not writing what I’m supposed to be. There’s an old maxim in writing that if you put off writing out an idea that comes to you – even in the middle of the night – you are guaranteed to forget it. Well, an idea came to me a week or so ago…in the middle of the night.

You know the refrain by now: I had to write it.

During my work week, I can squeeze in a couple hours of writing each day. What did I do with the two or three writing sessions I actually managed to complete this past week? Yep, you guessed it: I started fleshing out that idea that came to me.

Harrumph.

Connor and Oz are mad at me, now. They think I’ve forgotten them…

It really is a good idea, though.

 

p.s.

Sorry about the late post this weekend – I actually had the one that went up Saturday night written and ready in plenty of time, but when I tried to upload it on Thursday…well…remember the problems with electricity and wi-fi? Yeah, both hit me. And with 8 trillion people in the park every single day, the one Verizon tower I can reach gets a bit, umm, overloaded.

If I can remember to set my phone to upload overnight, I do promise to do another photo post this week.

 

That One Key Image

I’ve talked before about the fact that books & stories are not necessarily about what they’re about. As a writer, I love that fact; I love using subtext and themes to communicate my own thoughts and feelings in the work.

I have, in past posts, described what Wrath & Tears is really about, talked about that one key image that really defines the book for me: one broken kid holding the body of another, far more broken kid. But what is the key image for Silence?

Given that the current story is only about a third of the way finished, that’s harder to say than you might expect. But…I write the end first. And the end, in the way I write, is that key image. The end is the thought, and the emotion, I want to linger in the reader’s mind as they walk away.

So what is that image? Where Wrath touched on suicide, and my own memories and experiences thereof, Silence is about the search for meaning – for faith, if you will – and the realization (Wish? Hope?) that there really is more to life than this.

If, in my own life, that is a question very real and hard to answer, just how much worse is it for a street kid who has never had a chance in the world? For years, Connor’s world – his meaning – came down to just one thing: Oz. The two needed each other not just to survive, but to truly live. But Connor grew and changed where Oz could not, and a big part of his problems in the first story came from his unspoken, unrecognized need to search for more.

Recognizing that need is hard, even for an adult. For a 17-18 year old kid? Yeah, right: self-reflection and self-awareness aren’t exactly part of the standard equipment. I will reiterate something a very smart lady named Janet Reid once noted: “a 17-year-old boy is just a walking erection with an iPhone.”

And, no, that is not the main/final image for the current story!

So, we have this issue where Wrath is unabashedly and unashamedly sad, but Silence is intended to (re)introduce that one concept so glaringly absent from the first story: hope.

That theme and image, then, comes down to one thing for me, to something Connor  would never have considered a year ago. It comes down to the realization that, regardless of how broken and screwed up both he and the world are, he has to believe. Believe not just in himself, but also in something bigger…the realization that he has stand for something. It comes down to that same kid – broken and hurting still – reaching out for help to the one person he fears above all others.

As a final note: the theme of the third book is already decided, as well. Hell, the third book was decided the moment I wrote the final scene for Silence.

The key is in fact hinted at throughout all of Wrath & Tears, actually: alone is worse.

It’s time to really tackle that concept, and to touch on in a new light Connor’s struggles from the first two stories.

It is time, when you get right down to it, to tackle the concept of family…and everything contained within that incredibly loaded word. It is time, especially, to address the reality that Connor learned so early, and so painfully: some families you’re born into, and some you choose.

Writing About Not Writing; or, Where’s My Beer?!

So I’ve been on this “healthy” kick lately. Keep my cardio up, try to lose a few (dozen) pounds, that kind of thing.

A big part of that effort has been riding my bike more and more. Now, that bit really helps…not just with the exercise, but also with the “mood” thing. Aside from a good hike in the mountains, there ain’t much out there better for your mental health than an hour or two riding in the sunshine (and, yes, where I live does have something to do with that).

All is not well in my world, however. Not by a long shot.

Bike riding and healthy eating are not challenging, to be honest. I can do those without missing a beat. No, the problem is that I’ve also been cutting way, way back on beer. And I mean WAY back: I get, while on this kick, all of one visit per week.

That sounds great in theory…until you remember that I do at least two-thirds of my writing in taprooms! Cutting back means I’m not going to breweries. Not going to breweries means – yep, you guessed it – I ain’t writing!

Gah! Fuck my health, I need to write!

The sun is finally back out after two days of freezing rain. Two days in which I’ve been not riding and not writing. A ninety-minute bike ride was exactly what I needed. It felt good. And what do I do right after that oh-so-healthy-ride?IMG_0153

I swear to everything I hold dear, there was a chorus of angels singing around me as I took that first sip (drink, quaff….okay, okay, massive gulp) of beer.

IMG_0152Oh, thank God! I’m not just sitting in my regular seat in my regular taproom…I’m home!

This post came out in about thirty seconds, and the next is already coming together in the back of my mind. So also are some notes for Act II of Silence that need to be done before I can start writing that portion of the story (yes, Act I is done-ish).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to write…

Na zdravi!

P.S.

And, yes, yes…I know it really is all in my head. But, hey, it’s my damned head! At some point I probably need to explore the preconceptions and neuroses that say I can only write when I’m out in the “wild”. But not now. Right now it’s beer:thirty and I’m, err, occupied.

Some Of The How…

I’ve done some squirrel posts lately…and some more ‘big picture’, philosophical posts…but it occurs to me that what I have not done lately is a post about the writing process itself.

You know, what this blog is supposed to be about.  So, this one’ll be focused on the how of my writing, rather than the what and why.

I’ve mentioned before that my outline for a story is a listing of all the scenes it contains. As of right now, Silence is looking to come out at roughly 125,000 words for the first draft. Although that number is based on 60ish scenes, I won’t really have a final number until Acts I and IV are pretty much done, and I’ve then finalized Acts II and III.

All that aside, what I really wanted to talk about is writing scenes. You know, the actual, real writing part of writing . Everything else is to support this bit: creating the dang story.

This is why I got into this in the first place – to write! This is the part that has all the personal reward…and all the emotional ups and downs of living intimately with your characters and your story.

This is also when I get fairly obsessive: every spare minute is writing the story, doing the planning necessary to write the story, or thinking about writing the story.

That planning is key. What I list below may sound like a pain in the ass, but it really, really helps me to stay on track as far as the plot and characters are concerned.

Now, remember: I do not (generally) write scenes in the order they appear in the story. I write what I need to write that day…and sometimes I write what I need to write in order to understand the story itself (i.e. doing the final scene first).

This is a short list of the notes I write for each scene – it sounds like a lot, but it’s actually only about 400-500 words in total:
1) Background – general thoughts for the scene. Since this is sci-fi, I track “real world” reference material here, as well as preparatory research (prison culture and dynamics for the beginning of Silence, etc…).
2) Set-Up – the actual specifics leading to the scene. Especially what has happened to the characters up to that point, and what they are thinking/feeling as the scene opens. This is the key to writing the scenes out of order…without doing this I might end up using a character who has, ahem, already died…
3) Setting – pretty self-explanatory.
4) Voice/Tone – in other stories this section tracks who is the actual POV/narrator. Since Connor is the sole POV for this series, I keep a quick note on his tone and feelings.
5) Characters – again, pretty self-explanatory.
6) Intent – Even if I skip the stuff above, I cannot and will not skip this bit. Every scene absolutely must serve the story! Every scene must advance the plot in some way. No, really…writing a scene that accomplishes nothing is, well, pointless. You must understand what you are trying to accomplish in the scene before you write the damned thing.
7) Outline – yep, you guessed it…I break the scene down and plan how it is going to go. For an average-length scene, I will have 6-8 steps thought out, including my projected word count for each. This is the “map” I use to keep myself on pace for the scene and story.

As a final note – the above is my personal guide, and is intended only to make the writing process easier. As I put the actual words and thoughts on the page, things can and will change. All of the prep and planning in the world is useless if you don’t write the story you want to write.

My characters can and will force me to change things…and that is a good thing. The story in your hands should be a living, breathing, evolving thing. BUT! … That story is also quite like a two-year-old kid: you love it, you cherish it, but you really don’t want to let it drive your car.

The Dangers of Music

Since I just recently made the changes to this blog to reflect my interest in music (yes, as well as booze), I decided I should do a post on music itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a music blog. This is not going to be a music blog. Quite simply, I have neither the access nor the knowledge to pull off something like that.

Nope, this is still a blog about writing. Specifically, a place for me to (kinda-sorta) trace the process of writing a novel. One specific novel: The Silence That Never Comes.

But…

But music is important to me, and to my writing. It is a key part of the environment and atmosphere I need in order to write. Just as much as I need a place with life around me (coffee place, taproom, etc…), I need to have the right music playing (blaring) in my ears.

Now, to the point: there is danger in music. Great danger. {queue the Yoda-music}

At least for me.

There is always the danger of losing myself in the music I’m listening to. If I can’t lose myself in it, why the hell am I listening?

I’ve written stories in the past that were not based so completely on emotion…not based, to be honest, on characters and ideas that are so overwhelmingly emotional to me. Those stories sucked.

It took Connor and Oz – okay, let’s be honest, it took Oz! – to make me write stories that truly mattered to me, and truly reflected my own emotions and perceptions.

And that made everything better.

But…

But those stories have a lot of music at their heart. When I listen to songs and albums that are important to me, I have two real choices: I either write, or I sit in silent contemplation like some crazy freakin’ monk and let the music take me (and my mind) away.

A great deal of the time it is the second, by the way.

Especially if I’m drinking…sorry, but that’s just plain reality. I know, I know, I get in trouble for “glorifying” booze, but the simple fact is that it is a part of life.img_0139 Yes, Ben Franklin was right: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

The same lowering-of-inhibitions that makes me the most attractive human in the bar, however, also makes me throw myself into the emotion and meaning of the songs with which I have surrounded myself.

In the end, it comes down to a simple choice: focus on the music, or focus on the writing.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat there, pen in hand and paper at the ready*, but my mind lost in the music…and in the imagery it brings.

*Remember, I use different ways to write for different things: hand-writing for background and supporting material, typing for the story itself (and for these posts).

When I am writing scenes this is, thankfully, less of a problem. I obsess about my characters, and about my stories. Very little has the power to pull me away from writing them. The other, supporting stuff however? That’s a different story.

God forbid I start talking (or thinking) about editing….

Talking about editing is, in my mind, like talking about burying the dead. It’s necessary – vital, even – but I really don’t want to do it myself.

I should probably point out: I am writing this particular post at this particular time because I was sitting there on the patio, enjoying the sun and trying to write, and I got too deep into the music…

Maybe 600 words I wrote. Even handwriting, I should do double or triple that in a single sitting. If I’m typing, it’s more like 3,000 words…

That’s the big challenge in my life*: using the music to help me write, but not letting it take control. If I ever figure out that balance, I’ll be fucking gold.

*Bills? Failed romances? Pshaw…child’s play! I can ignore those and pretend they don’t exist. Music, on the other hand, not so much…

The World, Darkly (thanks Star Trek!)

Things are kinda odd at the moment. Even though I’ve started writing scenes for Silence, I still haven’t finished some of the normal prep work. Oh, the big stuff is done, but I’ve still got a handful of character pieces hanging over my head.

The most important of those remaining are the major-character POV summaries. Basically, in addition to the other summaries/synopses I write, I also do a brief run through the story from the POV of each major character. It helps me to find holes, and to make sure I understand and take into account their motivations and needs.

Since the story itself is told solely from the POV of an eighteen-year-old, emotionally broken, alcoholic thief, it’s important that I understand and keep faith with these characters. But how do I express their positions and actions through Connor’s perceptions if even I don’t understand them? It is depressingly easy to lose sight of the needs and wants of secondary characters (no matter how important) when Connor’s voice and personality are so dominant in the story…and in my head.

With that being said, there is something rewarding – cathartic, even – in the piece I am currently writing. The character in question is hugely important to Connor, and has a correspondingly major role in the plot. He is also a douchebag of the first order, as well as being a borderline psychopath. Think Ted Bundy with a massive bank account and you begin to get a picture of this particular character… His perspective stands in such stark contrast to Connor’s that writing it is actually pretty refreshing.

One thing is certain: this dude definitely gets a different soundtrack from Connor! More angry, “fuck you” music and less bitter, emotional stuff.

And yes, Connor pretty much wants to beat the crap out of him from the first minute they meet…

A Good Day

There’s still snow and ice on the ground…but it’s 60-degrees outside and the sun is shining. I went for a long bike ride (the wind off the lake was, err, not-so-warm!), then spent the rest of the day writing on the patio of a local brewery. Not my usual taproom, but this one has a better patio…well, at least a patio that gets actual sunlight.

Sorry, boys, but I’m gonna have to see other breweries until it gets too hot.

I am such a cheap beer-slut…

I’ve talked before about the fact that I struggle with depression, and all of the demons and monkeys that come with that. To be honest, I do not like talking about my own problems.  Pride and self-consciousness and an old-school upbringing define far more of me than I usually care to admit.

But, and this is a big but, I’ve personally been helped by others talking about their own struggles and problems, so how the fuck can I stay quiet?  Shit, Winston Churchill….Winston Fucking Churchill!…fought it his whole life.  His “black dog” he used to call it…

One of the things you learn – usually the hard way, but with someone else’s help if you’re lucky – is that being inside all the time, lacking any real natural light, just makes things worse. We, as humans, need natural sunlight. There’s a legit reason why the Russians have “UV Rooms” for the folks who live in Siberia…and it ain’t to keep up their tans.

So, there I was: sitting outside, drinking good beer and writing notes about the voice and tone I want to use in Silence. That document is half authorial notes, and half character sketch on Connor himself.

I spent three hours, and several pints, working on those notes with a swirl of activity around me. The sun was in my face, I was semi-tired from a 30-mile ride (hey, I’m out of shape – deal with it!), and I was writing…

img_0029A good fucking day.

Of course, the music has to match the day. Can’t do something totally morose and mellow when you’re sitting in the sun with a beer…

In many ways the music I listen to reflects the tone of what I’m writing, but that is an ever-moving target. My tastes change over time – they don’t evolve or improve, they just change. Today it’s one thing, tomorrow it might be something totally different…

I’m still listening to a shit-ton of Gaslight Anthem, and I figure I should give a shout out to what I consider their best album: Handwritten. Through all of the songs, my favorite piece off that album is a song called “Mae”. I love that song…in particular I love the nostalgia and the evocative tone & feeling it carries.  I could (and do!) listen to that song over and over. Close behind is “National Anthem” and “Biloxi Parish”. “Howl” ain’t no slouch, either.

These bastards know how to write a song.  Go ahead, buy the album…c’mon, just do it. You should always buy books and albums – don’t borrow, don’t pirate, buy!

The Peasants Rejoiced!

I gave myself the best present of all this week: I started the actual writing.

img_0028Yay!

Am I done with all the outlining? Nope.

Am I done with all the character details? Nope.

Is the Act I outline in good enough shape to start the process of laying out and writing scenes? Is the overall story idea developed enough? Big yes, to both.

I’ve mentioned before that I write the end of the story first (err, well, sorta…), then go back to the beginning. To me, you can’t go on a journey until you know where you start and where you finish. In between? That’s the time for all the wandering and randomness. And, yes, in real world terms that is how I ended up staying in a brothel in Spain. Don’t ask.

In writing terms that means I get to spend the next month or two working on Acts I and IV. When those are finally pounded into first-draft shape, then I will go back and fill in all the blanks in Acts II and III to make everything come together.

Hey, it works for me.

Honestly, I’m pretty geeked up about this – I’ve done snippets and little bits and pieces, but to finally get to sit down and write…well, that’s the fun part.

Which brings me to the harder part: beta readers.

As writers, we need ’em. But finding the right ones? That’s pretty damned hard. Too often those we ask to read either give no feedback at all, or give feedback that is, err, “less than useful”.

Actors are pretty much the biggest attention-whores in the Universe – shit, their entire being depends on people paying attention to them – but writers ain’t all that far behind. We live inside our own heads, and in general we understand just how badly we can lie to ourselves. We need the feedback and comments from readers. Even misanthropes like me crave that feedback…

I know writers who insist they will only use other writers as beta-readers. That, to me, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  On the one hand I can understand the sentiment: who better than a writer to know what feedback is important?

On the other hand, isn’t that just a bit like a manic-depressive getting therapy from a sociopath?*

*An old Steven Wright joke: a masochist and a sadist go on a date. The masochist says, “Hurt me!” The sadist answers, “No.”

I’ll have to think pretty hard about my beta-readers for this one. Yes, I trust myself and what I imagine and write. But trusting myself does not mean I actually get it right. That is what a beta-reader is for: to find the inevitable holes and flaws. It most definitely is not a grammar thing, it’s a story thing, and not a lot of people are wired to think (let alone respond) that way.

Shit, I wonder if I can order one from Amazon…

SuperChicken Was Right! BAWK!

I had this wonderful plan to get a week’s worth of posts queued up over the weekend so I could concentrate on other things this week.

That got derailed somewhere between an early-morning cold-weather hike and fermenting on my couch. I can’t even blame the football playoffs for that last bit…I gave up cable a couple years back, so there is no channel surfing for me (just streaming).

Ah well, that just means I have to bang out a post for today…and it has to be quick as the real world is catching up with me. Of course, it doesn’t help that I just wasted a half-hour on a five hundred word rant for a naval blog/site I take part in.

I am, it must be said, behind in working on Silence. I figure it takes me 9-10 months to complete a full 120,000 word story from initial exploration to final editing. If I were at all efficient, and could keep from channeling my inner-slacker, I could probably cut that by 2-3 months.

Nah.

Then the writing might start to feel like work, and work is a four-letter word I try to avoid (err, the only four-letter word I avoid…).

If you haven’t noticed, I’m also not terribly focused this morning. I am pretty much a squirrel-ridden mess at the moment.

So, back to being behind.

When I outline the plot for a story, I actually do it in stages. After the initial explorations and quick summaries/synopses, I sit down and break the plot into several arcs: the main/overall arc and a handful of sub-arcs.

Maybe I’m over-complicating things, but bear with me.

Silence has five significant arcs: the overall plot, Connor’s personal journey, a building socio-political conflict, Nat’s personal arc, and a personal arc specific to a new character. Crap…I am over-complicating. Oh well, in for a penny…

What slowed me down and put me on the wrong side of my timeline is clarifying and detailing those arcs. For each one, after I have an initial 300 word(ish) summary, I sit down and work out a detailed, individual outline.

That process forces me to think about each arc as its own story. Each has to have tension, build-up, a goal, stakes (that sense of threat & risk), and a climax. You know the drill…the very same things the story-as-a-whole has to have to make it readable and entertaining.

Working through those outlines helps me find problems and weaknesses. It also, inevitably, causes me to re-think choices and options. Some things seem great when I originally dream them up, but fail when I get down into the dirt with them. Other times I get this itching urge to add something new…

Both happened during this process.

The first three arcs I mentioned above are the most important, and the most intertwined. Keep in mind, at the same time I am working on this stuff, I am also finishing the details of my characters. That process brings up its own changes and roadblocks.

img_0025At the end of last week I pretty much rewrote the last third of the main story arc. Some things in the background of my antagonist changed my thinking at basically the same time I found some weakness in my original plot idea.

So, out goes all the stuff I worked out for that last third and in comes a new way of doing things and…PRESTO! I’m behind!

Ah well, I knew that job was dangerous when I took it!

Kicking Your Protagonist In The Ass

You can’t go home again.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the very real urge to go for the over-used quote…

I did…err…go home again. Well, I came back to visit the state & town (and house) where I did, in fact, grow up. When I start to think I could, maybe, put up again with Southern California in order to get back to the beach and the ocean, all I have to do is visit.

Hell, I don’t even have to actually visit. A five-minute layover at LAX is enough to remind me how much I hate this place…

Beside the oppressive atmosphere…and the crowding…and the expense…and the complete superficiality…this is an area that is just stultifying to me. I am instantly locked back into the stasis of younger days. It does not kick off anything for me, nor prod or goad me into action. Nope, what it does is set me back more years than I particularly care to think about.

It takes something big to kick me out of that particular rut: some action, some event, some thing.

Wait…is there a writing point in there somewhere?

Of course there is.

Stasis.

All stories start in stasis, whether you want them to or not. That’s pretty much Writing 101: your protagonist is in stasis, and something has to knock him or her out of it in order to start the journey of plot and character development.

Defining what that stasis is really matters. Someone can be running down a dungeon corridor, fleeing undead gophers bent on world destruction, and still be in stasis. Our hero might be stuck in a rut as an adventurer, looting yet another dungeon and running from yet another pack of zombie rodents.

Or maybe the stasis is personal: yet another bad night striking out at the single’s mead hall, yet another dungeon-crawl to wash away the hangover and bad taste of sleeping alone.

Regardless of what it is, that stasis is important. Where your protagonist starts is just as important as where they finish. More than that, it defines the journey.

If I tell you about staying in Prague and going to a brewery in Plzen, that starts you thinking in one (not terribly interesting) way. The starting point does not help the story along, nor does it make the end matter.

img_0021If, however, I add that the man I was taking to the brewery was a veteran of the US 3rd Army and helped to liberate Plzen sixty years before, that starting point changes drastically and things get much more interesting*.

*And, yes, I really did do that…and yes, that short excursion really did knock me out of a certain stasis & complacency at the time.

The point of that whole aside is that what your characters’ stasis is – where they are starting from – matters just as much as what knocks them out of that stasis and kicks off your plot. In some ways it matters a great deal more.

To tie this all back to my “live blogging” of the current story: I have been working on Connor’s current stasis. It definitely is not situational as he’s in a dynamic, dangerous place at the beginning.

No, his stasis is personal and emotional. Put simply, Connor is frozen. He’s all but dead emotionally, and has surrendered any desire or hope of there being something better in life, of there being any hope or meaning beyond minute-to-minute survival. Survivor’s guilt – and shame and regret and anger – have overwhelmed him, and he simply no longer cares. That is his stasis, that is where he (and the story) begins.

Remember when I mentioned I am all about character-driven stuff? Yup, this is the kind of thing I was talking about. The plot has to serve the character, not the other way around. Like adversity, the plot simply reveals (or at least should reveal) what is already there…