Keeping Momentum

IMG_0163This blog was once intended as a practical, “behind-the-scenes” view of the writing process.  It has, I’ll admit, morphed away from that intent.  I still, however, do have that underlying urge to occasionally share my own hard-won experience and advice in writing.

Today’s IWSG topic gives me an excuse to play to that (occasional) urge: “What steps have you taken to put a schedule in place for your writing and publishing?”

To tackle this one, I have to — with more than a hint of sad revulsion — briefly put on my big-boy pants and flash back to my days as a sales and marketing monkey.

In the old days, when I used to manage staff and projects, I would create timelines and plans with all kinds of measurables and delivery dates.  I knew, every time I checked that schedule, exactly where any project stood at any particular moment.  I also knew, within reason, when any element, major or minor, was going to be finished.

I do something similar with the writing.  Err, I try to do something similar.

At the end of my normal prep process, I have a detailed timeline and a list of all the scenes in that particular story.  That list includes the day/date of the scene, the setting and the characters involved, as well as notes on things like tone, perspective, and some background on what has gone before.

After I create that plan, however, the schedule is…well…the schedule can pretty much kiss my ass.  Hey, I left the world of cubicles and meetings and schedules for a reason, goddammit!

I write whatever scene strikes my fancy at any particular moment.  I’ve found that jumping around the story like the caffeine-addled squirrel that I am allows me to match the scene to my mood and inclination.

As strange as it may sound, that little tic actually makes the entire project go faster.  Recently, I tried forcing myself to write things in order, and it turned out to be a serious failure.  A failure from which I am still trying to recover, I might add.  Writing a fight scene when I was feeling mellow and laid back…writing a love scene after a bad day…writing exposition and setup when there was chaos around me…these things were not a recipe for success.

Now, the above is pretty idiosyncratic to me, but there is something in there that can apply to almost any writer: don’t write to your word-count, write to your story.

If your plan is solely to write 1000 (or 2000, or 5000) words a day, then that is exactly what you are going to do…write words.  Whether or not you advance the story is another thing entirely.

It is far too easy — and far too common — to get so caught up in the “measurables” that you lose sight of just what those those measurable really represent.  Call it the writer’s version of “forest for the trees.”

Thinking of my story in terms of scenes, however, is something that works quite well.  Each scene is (roughly) a day’s worth of writing, and represents a discreet and significant unit of the story itself.  If I stick to the plan of writing one scene a day, I am certain to advance the story…and to get my necessary work done.

Honestly, it also plays into psychology…or at least into my particular psychology: finishing a scene provides a more significant sense of accomplishment than simply ending the day with 2,500 more words written.

My last bit of advice on this, and perhaps the more important one, is this: momentum is king.  Writing — again, at least for me — is very much a game of momentum.  A regular rhythm of producing at least one scene per day builds not just your story, but also your confidence and the flow of your words.  Break that momentum?  Stop that flow?  Not only do bad things happen, but you make it vastly harder to start again.

Look, for most of us writing isn’t all that different from pushing the Sisyphean boulder up the hill. Take a break and that damned rock can roll right over you on its way back down.  But if you keep pushing…

…if you keep pushing, you find the next hill.  And the next hill, like the next story, is always better.

Fixing Things

You ever have that nagging feeling that you forgot something?  Your keys…your wallet…your cond…ahem, never mind.

Nagging feelings, that’s what I was talking about.  Yeah, that’s it, nagging feelings.

I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt ’em, or something like them.  Shit, I know it’s a pretty regular thing for me — mostly because I usually did forget something.  There was this time I was going to the airport for a flight to Japan, and I forgot my passport…

That sucked.

You know what sucks worse, though?  That nagging feeling that you forgot something in your story.  That feeling that the 68,000 words you’ve already written don’t include something important, something fundamental to a major character.  And I don’t mean an idea you came up with recently that you have to go back and insert…  No sir, I’m talking about a subplot that is crucial to the development of that character, a subplot that was supposed to be included from the very beginning.

I hate myself right now…especially since this whole subplot was an effort to make right some of the wrongs I did to this particular character in the first story.

I’ve mentioned before just how much I dread the editing and rewrite process, as necessary and valuable as it is.  Now I’m not even going to wait until the damned story is finished!

Plot-wise, however, it is a good time to take a break.  I have some planning and thinking to do about the rest of the story, and a great deal of prep-work.  Oh, and some cutting…definitely some cutting.  Finishing out at 135,000 (projected) words is not a particularly good idea, I think.

Maybe that’s what sets writers apart from “normal” folks: we (usually) get do-overs.  We get to go back and fix our mistakes.  We get to excise what doesn’t work, and to develop and emphasize what does.

If we — well, if I — could do that in our “real” lives, things would be a hell of a lot better!

The caveat I will give to the above goes back to my photography habit.  In this “digital age,” there is a tendency to say “I can fix it in post.”  Beginning photographers often use the ability to edit and modify images after they are taken as an excuse to “spray and pray” in order to get a few semi-decent pictures that later can be “fixed.”

That is, to be blunt, bad photography.  It’s bad technique, it’s bad art, and it leads to bad development as an artist and a photographer. When I shoot pictures, I do my best to get everything right in the lens.  It’s a challenge I have set for myself, and it does a great deal to make me better.*

*Sadly, I don’t generally apply to this the “snapshots” I take with my cell phone.  I’m not a huge fan of using the thing as a camera, anyway, so I don’t spend a lot of time getting “everything right” with it.  Although, I should add, it IS a hell of a lot better to haul around when hiking than a full size DSLR.

So, here’s my question: given that I have to go back and do some editing — fix some things in post, as it were — is that habit any better for a writer? Or is it just as bad form, just as bad technique…and just as bad for development and improvement as an artist?

Shit, I hate questions like that. They make me uncomfortable, and I don’t particularly want to be uncomfortable.

I do, on the other hand, want to be better as a writer…and the only way to get better is to set yourself a higher bar.  I’m jealous of those folks who can get a story right on the first (or even the second) try.  I’m jealous of them, and I pretty much hate them, but goddamit, would I love to be like them (in that regard, anyway)!

The 4 W’s: What

Look…you know I’m a character-centric guy. You know anything I write starts (and ends) with the characters, and the plot is just the Charlie-Brown-pine on which I hang the lights and ornaments and decorations that make it an actual Christmas tree. You know because, well, I’ve talked about it often enough…

So, for me, the what of my stories isn’t some big plot point, some stand-alone crisis & climax & resolution…it’s the story of the protagonist(s), and how they deal with with those plot points. I know it sounds semantic, but I can assure you that it’s not. It most assuredly is not — it is a very real difference in emphasis, and in execution.

Let me put it like this: as much as I love Star Wars, why did I hate The Force Awakens? Because the characters — with the exception of Finn & BB8 — were forgettable, 2-dimensional cookie cutters that meant not one damned thing to me. There is no bigger Mary Sue in the damned universe than Rey…and don’t even get me started on the uselessness that is/was Kylo Ren. Quite simply, the characters in that movie were there simply to serve the plot; they had no meaning and no life in and of themselves.

Contrast that with Rogue One. I bought into Rogue One…I bought all the way in. The characters in that movie existed, they meant something. They had more depth, and more reality, than the entire cast of TFA put together. Jyn and Cassian were, quite simply, more believable — more important — than Rey and Poe.

And that makes all the difference.

So, when I plan and design the what of a story, it is not a plot into which I insert my characters. Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact: it comes from the characters themselves.

I’ve mentioned before the rather extensive background work I do before I ever start writing a story. Part of that is just to help me fill in holes and answer questions…but just part. No, the majority of that comes because I need to think and live — I need to experience — my characters’ reality before I truly know where things are going. I need, when you get right down to it, to let them talk to me.

A real world example:

The story that evolved and grew into Wrath & Tears and Silence (and the planned third story, tentatively titled The Flicker of Ghosts) started life simply as a planned series of short stories I nicknamed Project Dock Rat. It was anticipated to be nothing more than the serial adventures of a homeless kid, scraping by as a thief with the help of his best friend.

There was nothing in the original conception about society’s sins, nor the exploitation and violence and ruthlessness that are so a part of the real world. There was, equally, nothing about suicide, or suffering, or the despair of the hopeless.

Then I thought and worked through the two main characters (a third got axed/changed…long story, there), the two who became Connor and Oz.

I had no idea when I originally dreamed up the idea that the protagonist would come to be a reflection of my own survivor’s guilt, nor that his best friend would come to represent those I’ve lost to suicide. I had no idea the story would come to mean something very personal to me.

But it did.

It became not the “adventures of a homeless kid,” but rather the story of Connor’s attempt to save his own soul…and Oz’s failure to do the same thing.

THAT is the what of a story, to me: the reality and evolution of characters that matter.

Yep, I’m Late…Again

Normally I get the week’s blog posts written early. I like to have two or three ready to go so, when the time comes to actually get something up, I don’t have to worry about it.

This ain’t one of those days.

I had all weekend to write. I had all weekend to focus and concentrate. I also had all weekend for Halloween events.

Well, for Halloween events and hangovers. There may even have been some drunk texting…and all I’ll say about that is that, for the next zombie crawl & party, I’m locking my damned phone in the car.

Ahem.

‘Nuff said.

People who know I write love to ask, “What are you working on now?”

I hate that question.

I hate that question because the answer is always either insufficient, or confusing. Or both.

Responding with “Same book” just results in people looking confused and asking why it isn’t done yet. But God help me if I mention that I’m also exploring an idea for a completely different story.

Then the questions start: “What’s the plot?” “Who is the main character? The antagonist?” “What’s it all about?”

I don’t know, yet: THAT’S WHY I’M EXPLORING, DAMMIT!

And Silence isn’t done yet because, well, I’m having a hell of a time getting my focus back. I’m at the point in the plot where things are, err, “muddled”. I need to go back and clarify a number of points, as well as add a handful of scenes to play up a specific arc and theme I want to address.

Until I get all of that thought through and finished, I’m stuck.

It is times like this, of course, that I meet or hear about those writers out there who finish two or three books a year. Yeah, because hearing about that really helps! Look, I’m a one-story-a-year guy, and that ain’t gonna change…no matter how guilty and insufficient those “speed-writer” types make me feel.

Really…am I the only who feels that way? And when the hell did writing turn to the “faster is better” dynamic, anyway? Isn’t, uhh, ”better is better” the way to go?

Crap, this is why I need to bury myself and just go back to writing…thinking too much makes my head hurt.

The Definition Of Insanity

Way back when – no, really, waaaay back when – I mentioned that I don’t write the scenes that come together to make my stories in anything resembling the order in which they appear. I have had, for a long time now, the habit of writing things whenever the mood strikes: a love scene here, a fight there…

You get the idea.

Well, for Silence, I decided to try something different. I decided to go in order.

Umm…what the hell was I thinking?

I do, of course, realize that my major problem with actually, you know, getting shit done was because I’ve been far too distracted by Yellowstone itself for the last six months, but there definitely has been more to the problem. Trying to force myself into writing scenes that I just didn’t feel at the time was one of my stupider decisions*.

*And, trust me, if there’s anyone on this world who knows stupid decisions, it’s me!

Believe it or not, I managed to figure out that problem about two months ago. But…well…I’m as stubborn as I am crazy: I tried to keep at it, anyway.

Ahem.

Thankfully, my return to ‘reality’, and to my regular writing locations, gives me the perfect excuse to make some long-needed changes.

No more going in order: it ain’t working, and I don’t need to prove Einstein even more right. Nope, back to cherry-picking the scenes I feel like writing. The set-up for that ain’t actually all that easy – I have to pay a lot more attention to the prep material I create for each scene – but it is more than worth the extra effort.

Shit, I can feel a weight lifting already. Just wait until I really sit my butt down in my taproom for a full afternoon of writing! I am literally – embarrassingly – all-but giddy with excitement.

Giddy.

Me.

The bitter, cynical asshole.

Crap, I can hear Connor and Oz laughing at me even as I type this.

Shut up, you two! You did this to me!

Umm…

Nope, not nuts at all.

Go Where The Story Takes You

IMG_0163It’s IWSG day again – yay!

If you haven’t guessed by now, this blog is pretty much a free-form flow of rambling thoughts. I have, of course, always planned to completely avoid stream-of-consciousness posts…and generally failed at that.

Oh well.

But…but, at least IWSG-day gives me ONE day a month where I can be planned and structured!

Err…well…sometimes…

Hey, what can I say? I’m sitting in the Yellowstone sun after a relaxing hike (just eight miles), with a beer in hand and my iPad open and ready for the words…

Life doesn’t suck right now, and fully planned & structured posts ain’t really at the top of my mind.

Okay, with that in mind, it’s time for the post itself: Has writing ever surprised you?

Every time.

No, really…every single damned time.

Honestly, it would be better to say that if my writing ever stops surprising me, it’s time to burn all the pages and hang up my pen.

My writing is my characters, and my characters have voices and minds of their own. They are – as I’ve mentioned before – the little ghosts fluttering around the back of my mind, always talking, always telling their stories to me.

For me to write a story, I have to believe in my characters. They have to be real, they have to have their own needs and demands. The creative process is very much a tug-of-war between me and them. What they want is not always what I want, or what I had planned.

And sometimes they win.

I suppose the best way to illustrate that point is to go back to my planning & preparation steps. After I’ve come up with the characters themselves, and the basic plot outline, comes the single biggest prep item in terms of time and effort: I write a summary of the entire story from each and every significant character’s POV.

Keep in mind, these ain’t little 300-word synopses, these are 3,000-5,000-word detailed summaries. In a lot of ways, they are stories in and of themselves. To do that, I have to put myself into all of my characters’ heads. And that, very often, surprises me.

I’ve said before that Oz (from Wrath & Tears) is my favorite character, bar none. Well, his (never shared) POV document is the most heart-breakingly painful thing I’ve ever read (let alone written)….it also completely changed the story I had planned.

Not only is that the best example I can think of for why I do what I do, it is also a very good example of why a writer should always look for surprise, and always be open to change: before I wrote that bit, Wrath was Connor’s story, it was the story – both upfront and in subtext – of a simple street kid trying to fight his way out.

But after?

But after…the story became real, and it became very much Oz’s story. Yes, my protagonist was the same…yes, my plot was the same…but after that, all of the subtext became (or was supposed to become) about the despair and self-destruction that led my favorite character to commit suicide.

And that surprised me. Suicide has always been far too personal, and far too real, for me to ever write about.

Until Oz made me.

I could write about the other surprises in my work: I could write about how creating Silence’s final scene first made me go back and rewrite the entire fucking story…I could write about how, every time I sat down to write the conspiracy theory story, the words that came out were for another story entirely…I could write about how planning and structuring in too much detail ruined the first two novels I ever wrote, and how letting go of my inhibitions made all the difference…

But, in the end, it comes down to one thing for me: if your writing does not surprise you, if it does not make you want to keep writing just to see what the hell happens, why bother?

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.