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.

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…