When Real Life Hands You Storybits

Sometimes real life hands you stories, almost fully-formed, and all you have to do is write them down. It’s like taking dictation. This happens, but it doesn’t happen very often, at least not for me. That’s kind of par for the course, when your genres are space opera and fantasy. Real life can’t give me too many stories about space wars or lost princesses. At least not yet, anyway.

But real life does give me a lot of storybits. What are storybits? They’re simply that: bits that can either be the basis for stories, or can serve as parts of stories. You never know where you might end up using a storybit, which is why you, as a writer, simply MUST make it part of your daily routine to recognize storybits and file them away for future reference. You don’t have to use all of your storybits, but the more you have, the easier it will be to do cool stuff in your stories!

Here are some times when I’ve used storybits.

ONE: Years ago, I worked in restaurant management, and one place I worked was a Bob Evans in Jamestown, NY. We had a regular customer named Karl, who was an older gentleman, probably in his late 60s or early 70s. (This was in 1998 or so.) Karl drove a nicely used pickup truck, but he was always very well-dressed when he came in to eat, always by himself. He had a handsome smile, but he was always quiet and always showed up, read the paper while he waited and while he ate, and then he would quietly leave, paying his bill and bidding us all goodbye with a genial nod of his head.

Then one day one of my servers informed me of the headcanon that she and the other servers had cooked up for Karl. I asked what his story was, and if anyone knew anything about him. No one did, so they had all concluded that Karl was one of the Nazi genius scientists that we brought over to the United States after World War II and gave a new identity in exchange for his research on nuclear power or rocketry or whatever.

Karl went on to feature as the creepy antiques dealer in my story “In Longhand” (available on Wattpad!). It’s one of very few times I ever put someone I knew from real life directly into a story, but even there it wasn’t much of a roman a clef. I didn’t know Karl at all other than his visits to Bob Evans, and I never even learned his last name. But he lives in a little in that story.

TWO: This happened in the last year! I thought I took photos, but I can’t find them, so I’m not sure when exactly it happened. My day job is in a large grocery store in a Buffalo suburb, and the Store is located on a heavily-traveled street. Near the front corner of our building, by the street, there is a large steel grate, through which water runs into the storm drainage system for the town. I never thought much about this grate (it’s big, about three feet square), until one day when I saw a bunch of cops standing around it. There were three or four squad cars all in our parking lot, clustered right by that corner near the grate, and then a big police van pulled up on the street, with two other squad cars pulling up in front and behind, to block off the right lane. I naturally wondered what was going on, but I couldn’t get close enough to see. However, I have access to my building’s roof, so up I went!

Looking down on this scene, I was able to clearly see that the cops had lifted the grate, exposing the drop into the sewer system below. I couldn’t see from that vantage point how far down it went, but there was a cop in a wet suit standing nearby, and they were lowering a ladder into the drain. Soon, the wet-suit cop went down. I didn’t stick around for him coming back up, but he soon did, and the cops put the grate back in place and then they dispersed.

I later learned that some people had called the police from the neighborhood of The Store, reporting voices in the sewers. The idea was that some kids had got in there, and were making their way through the sewers of the town. Thus search-and-rescue was deployed. I don’t know if anything ever turned up (well, I do know that they didn’t find bodies or anything so horrible), but that stuck in my mind. This incident has just this week found its way into the second John Lazarus novel.

THREE: Storybits don’t even have to be pieces of story. They can be the tiny details you notice as you go through life. It’s details like these that can make your story seem especially real.

One day, I was out driving, running errands. It was a summer day, and there was a sudden thunderstorm that fired up quickly, dumped its rain, and then moved on just as quickly as it had come. When it was gone, the sun came out again, just as bright and brilliant as before, but now everything was wet, including the road.

That was when I noticed that the car in front of me was kicking up spray from its back tires, and the sunlight was making tiny rainbows in the spray. I had never seen that before, and I’ve never seen it since. I think it’s really one of those “right place at the right time” sorts of phenomena that probably happens a lot but no one notices, and it doesn’t happen often to each individual one of us because while there’s always someone out driving in the post-storm sunshine, how often is it us, and how often are we looking down at the tires of the car in front of us, and how often are we driving at the right angle to the sun to see those tiny spray-bows?

Storybits are everywhere. Look for them!

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Finding time

People often talk about “finding” time to write, as if there’s a few minutes to be found under the couch, or “making” time to write, as if by sheer force of will we can make the next hour contain 69 minutes instead of the usual 60. I don’t much care for either notion. There is no more time for you than there is for me, and unless you’re incredibly fortunate, there are likely roughly as many demands on my time as there are on yours.

So no, you don’t “find” or “make” time to write. All you can do is use the time you’ve already got. I wish I had more time to write, but then, so do all who live to see such times. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us. (Seems I’ve heard someone say something very like that before…hmmmm….)

John Scalzi put it all very bluntly a few years back, and I tend to agree strongly with him here:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

Yes.

But still, lectures like that aren’t always the answer. Specific examples might be helpful, if you’re struggling to somehow pack more writing into your day. All of this involves tradeoffs. It involves concluding that some existing time-sinks in your life need to be adjusted, in terms of their priority, in order to squeeze something else in. In some cases, it might even involve making some painful decisions regarding things that you really like doing, so ultimately it all comes down to the question of just how much you like writing in the first place, and the only person who can answer that is you. These are the things that I did when I decided that it was time to shift from “I wanna write sometime” to “I’m gonna write NOW.” Some of it is about using time for writing; others are about maximizing the quality of my writing time.

1. Get up earlier. Unless you’re a morning person by temperament – and I am not – this one sucks. But I had to do it. I used to get up at 6:00 am to get ready for work (my shift starts at 7:30 most days, and I have a roughly 15-minute commute). I started getting up at 5:30, thus gaining an extra thirty minutes of writing time before work. Does it suck? Yeah, sometimes. I am not, as I note, a morning person. But the time’s gotta come from somewhere, and there are fewer demands on my time early in the day than later, so that’s when I’ve decided that I have to get some of the work done.

2. Write during lunch. In fact, that’s what I’m doing now! As I write this, it’s my lunch period. Now don’t worry, I’m not giving up eating. But what I’ve done is utilize the down time I get at work differently. My job allows me a 15-minute break and a 30-minute lunch period each day. I used to take the break in the morning sometime, and then lunch around 1:00. Now I take the break around noon, during which I eat (because quite frankly, it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes to eat), and I take the lunch period around 2:00 or 2:30, during which I exclusively write.

It helps that I have my own small work area with my own door, so I can get privacy, and it also helps that I have never much liked the atmosphere of “break rooms”, no matter what job I had. Am I missing out on some social time with coworkers? Maybe, but I get plenty of that anyway.

3. The crockpot is your friend. It really, truly is. Now, you don’t want to overdo it, but several nights a week it falls to me to cook, and sometimes it’s nice to have a meal option that doesn’t involve losing an hour or two to prepping and working over the stove. You can do wonderful things with a slow cooker, and it can really free up some good writing time. (This is also why God invented rotisserie chickens and frozen pizzas.)

4. Set a daily quota. I have been a firm believer in quotas for years, and I plan to go right on being a fan of quotas. Setting real, measurable goals and breaking them down into meaningful chunks is important to me, and it helps me feel like I’m actually making progress when I have those days when, as Stephen King puts it, I only feel like I’m “shoveling shit from a sitting position”. Make your quota high enough to be a challenge (it shouldn’t be easy), but low enough to be attainable.

This is where you have to know yourself and your level of likely useful productivity. Currently I’m enforcing a quota of 1200 words a day, because that’s what I feel I can reasonably achieve in a day while still leaving room for family, meals, showers, dog walks, reading, and other stuff. If you can write more than that with the time you’ve carved out for yourself, great! If less, then that’s fine, too. If you set a quota and find that you’re hitting it every day with ease, raise it. If you’re never hitting it, then lower it. A quota is a goal you set for yourself, and more than that, it’s a tool to help you be productive. A quota is not a stick to beat yourself with.

5. Know which days are good and which aren’t, and feel free to adjust quotas accordingly. Just because you have quotas doesn’t mean that they have to be the same every day. In my own life, with the routine we currently have, it turns out that Tuesdays are really bad for writing. More specifically, Tuesday nights are never good for writing, so if I want to hit quota on Tuesdays, I have to get out of bed and make it happen early. On the flip side I have Saturdays, which are almost always awesome writing days, so I allow myself a quota of 2000 words on Saturdays. Every day is not created equal!

6. When you hit quota, STOP. This is another thing I believe. There are days when it’s grossly tempting to plow past my quota and keep going until I double it, triple it, whatever it. I don’t think that’s a great idea, because I think it can lead me to raising my expectations for each day out, thus magnifying the shittiness of the shitty days, and it can make it easier to blow off a day when I’ve blasted quota to bits the day before. Along with my strong belief in daily quotas is an equally-strong belief in steady, consistent production. Binge-writing, in my experience, leads to days when I write nothing at all, and those days are poison to my writing-loving heart.

There’s an old adage in storytelling: “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” Well, I think it applies to writers, too: Always leave yourself wanting more!

7. Leave a note for the next session. This is something I started doing after I read Rachel Aron’s book 2k to 10k. It’s not so much “outlining”, but when I end a session “in the groove”, I always have a good idea of what’s to immediately follow. Since sometimes twenty-four hours can pass before the next session, I find it hard to jump back in with the same enthusiasm with which I finished the day before. I do some hemming and hawing as I try to recapture a thought process that ended a day before, and in this way I lose valuable time.

So when a session ends, I try to leave myself a note – two or three sentences is enough – telling me where I’m going next. It makes hitting the ground running the next day a lot easier, and when time is of the essence, hitting the ground running is pretty important.

Let’s see, what else? Some folks swear by apps that disable their Internet access or other such efforts to make their work distraction-free. I do not do this. I can get distracted by the Internet as much as anyone, but I’m pretty good at cranking away without needing distractions when I get myself going, and my whole writing practice is designed to make it as easy as possible to get into that zone. About the only thing I like to do in terms of reducing distractions is using Scrivener’s fullscreen writing environment, and even that sometimes I eschew, since I like to keep two panes open, one with the manuscript and one with my character notes or some other info file.

So that’s how I maximize the time I have in order to get the most work done. How about you all? Let me know your tricks for getting productive!

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Get thee behind me, June!!!

So June is over and we’re into July, which means it’s time to take a look at the month gone past in terms of writing, and offer some other news items of note, first from my part of the world and then from other writers!

:: Numbers? We got ’em!

Final June #amwriting tally. 'Twas a bit of a rocky month!

The main project was drafting the second “GhostCop” novel, and in those terms, June was productive, but not greatly productive. It was not a bad month from a writing perspective, not bad at all. It wasn’t great, either. I basically made my targets and that’s about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. There were some days when the writing was harder than others, especially one stretch toward the end of the month when external-world concerns piled on to make writing especially difficult. Basically, The Wife had to work a number of very early-in-the-morning shifts, which screwed up everybody’s sleep schedules. I’m not super militant about needing my eight hours a night, but 4.5 to 5 hours for three or four consecutive nights increasingly takes its toll on me. But I soldiered through and still managed to average over 1000 words a day for June.

I also only had one zero-word count day, but on that day I sat down and did some “prep” work, making some notes about characters and ironing out the backstory that comes into play in the book’s third act and generally nailing down what all the various conflicts are in the book. There are more moving parts in this story than I had originally expected, but it should all play out in a pretty explosive way toward the end. At least that’s the current hope! As I write this (July 2, but it will appear on July 5), I have finished drafting the first act of the book and am on to the second. I hope to have the draft done by the end of August.

:: The focus this fall, starting in September, will be the publication prep for GhostCop Book One and Amongst the Stars, both of which will appear this fall. Hooray!

:: But I’ll also be starting another series of space opera adventures! I’ll say more about this as time passes, but it’s set in the Forgotten Stars universe. The stories will likely not intersect in any meaningful way; I’m setting them in the same universe mainly because I want to use the established world-building I already have in place. As Lt. Uhura once pointed out on Star Trek, “It’s a big galaxy!” So I might as well keep playing in it. I ‘ve been doing some plot-noodling and generating information on my characters, because this is going to be a Firefly kind of adventure series, with a spaceship and her intrepid crew having exploits. And I’ve even been sketching the ship! Move over, Millennium Falcon! Take a back seat, Serenity! Meet Orion’s Huntress, soon to be one of the iconic ships in all science fiction!

Spaceship for an upcoming space opera series I plan to write! (The ship's tentative name? Orion's Huntress.) #spaceopera #SpaceshipsAreAwesome #amwriting

:: Nifty blogger and writing cohort Faith Rivens recently read both Stardancer and The Wisdomfold Path, and she graciously reviewed both, here and here, respectively. Check them out! And then read the books, because they’re good! Other people say so!

:: A few months ago I first heard the term “bullet journal”. This has nothing to do with firearms. It’s a specific way of using a journal to enhance your daily like and productivity. Blogger and writer Coryl O’Reilly explains.

:: Ksenia Anske on taking long breaks between drafts. I absolutely believe in doing this. I wait at least three months between first draft and first manuscript markups, and most times I wait even longer than that. Distance makes seeing the flaws easier.

:: It’s required by law that I link this, so here it is: George RR Martin and Stephen King sit down and chat.

It’s a grand world out there, Writerfolk!!!

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Sunshine Blogger Award!!!

Oh wow, it’s actually been an entire month since I posted here last, hasn’t it? That’s terrible. Anyway, I’ll have a proper report up on how June went in terms of writing (short version: mixed bag) early next week, but for now, check this out: A fellow writer, Rebecca Chase, nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award! Huzzah!!

The rules are as follows:

The Sunshine Blogger Award is a “get to know the writer better” type of blogging exercise, with a couple of rules attached:

1. Answer all 11 questions asked by the blogger who nominated you.

2. Nominate eleven bloggers in return and write eleven (possibly fiendish) questions for them to answer.

You know, it’s funny — over on Byzantium’s Shores (my personal blog, for those who only know me through here), I’ve been blogging for so long that I remember when these types of blog-quiz awards were quite common. They’ve really fallen by the wayside with the rise of Facebook and Twitter and the like, but they’re still fun, so I’ll go ahead and answer these, pose my own, and nominate. Here we go!

1. What is your favourite song? Do you have a significant memory attached to a time you listened to it?

Oh heavens, it’s this question. Don’t you just hate when you ask someone this question and they get all dewy-eyed and say something like “Gosh, I just love music so much that I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite song!”

Well, guess what? Gosh, I just love music so much that I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite song! Although…I can pick a favorite song, just so long as we acknowledge that there are hundreds of others. For now, I’ll note the song “Last Dance” by Donna Summer. Here’s what I wrote on my personal blog about that song on the occasion of Donna Summer’s passing.

2. Where do you love to blog/write the most?

Upstairs, in my library, surrounded by my books.

But I do love writing elsewhere. I can write in cafes and in public libraries perfectly well, and I like to do so once a week, if possible, for the change of pace. I also want to try writing in a public park or something like that, but as of this writing my laptop’s battery is too old to live up to a sustained writing session without a cord. Luckily, though, also as of this writing, I’ve ordered a new battery! I don’t want to buy a new computer for at least another year if I can help it.

3. If you could make up a fear of something what would it be of and what would it be called?

Huh. Interesting. How about Pronunciphobia, which is the fear that you badly mangle a word in spoken conversation because you’ve only ever read it and therefore you don’t know how it’s said? Or Scrabble Expectations Syndrome. This is when people assume that you’re a great word-game player because you’re a writer.

And as a pie-in-the-face fan, I admit to barbasolaphobia. This is an unreasoning hatred of shaving cream. That stuff is terrible, folks!

4. Italian or French? (in whatever context you decide)

French! (We’re going with opera here. I love me some French composers. Hector Berlioz is my favorite composer of all time, and he wrote three wonderful operas. Then you have Bizet, composer of Carmen. Not that the Italians are any slouches, though. Verdi and Puccini are enough to ensure the Italian star in the operatic heavens.)

Oh, and salad dressing? Italian all the way. I’ve never been a big fan of French dressing.

5. What do you think killed the dinosaurs? (can be as creative an answer as you like)

Nothing. There never were any dinosaurs. Their bones were artificially created and seeded around the world by the aliens who put us here. Why? Because they’re jerks.

6. What is the strangest thing you’ve ever had to research for your writing/blogging?

Huh. I’m not really sure! I recently looked up how boiler explosions happen, because my current WIP features someone who died in one.

7. What can you hear right now? What would you prefer to be listening to?

Right now? Crickets and birds; the wind in the trees; traffic on the big highway that’s a quarter-mile thataway; the clackety-clack of the dog’s feet as he wanders about trying to signal us that he wants to go out for his walk!

8. What do you do when you feel you should be writing but are lacking in inspiration?

I usually grit my teeth and force myself to write. I’m a “Get the job done” kind of person. I don’t have a great deal of use for waiting for The Muse to show up.

9. What is your greatest achievement?

Raising the Daughter; staying married (no, we never came close to breaking, but we did have some pretty serious tests about ten years ago); finishing a book; learning how to use Scrivener (yes, this counts); learning how to format e-books in various formats!

10. If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life what would it be?

As long as I can change the toppings in any way I want? Pizza. Or waffles. Or sandwiches, with as broad a definition as possible! I also can’t rule out nachos or burritos. Damn, this question is hard!

11. Who is your favourite author and why?

My favorite living author is Guy Gavriel Kay, whose historical fantasies are deeply emotional and filled with characters who are incredibly real. My favorite nonliving author is JRR Tolkien, because The Lord of the Rings is quite frankly a miracle of a book.

OK, time to tag a few people! And my eleven questions follow. Wheeeee!

Roger
Calvin
SamuraiFrog
Lynn
Briana
Brianna
Sara
AB Keuser
Rae
Faith

 

Questions:

1. What do you value more in a story: dialog or plot?
2. Describe the home planet of Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Come on, that dude ain’t human.)
3. If you enjoy watching any sports at all, which ones would you at least like to try just once?
4. Describe the most recent book to which you gave (or would have given) five stars.
5. Do you finish bad books? Why or why not?
6. How vexed are you when movies don’t match the books?
7. Describe your perfect hot beverage. In detail. I’m talking roast of bean or variety of leaves, additives like spices or squirts of citrus, vessel from which the drink is sipped, where you are sitting as you sip it, who is next to you, what music is playing.
8. Do you watch cooking shows? If so, describe your favorite.
9. Name a place you’ve visited that you thought you’d hate but you didn’t.
10. You know that hobby you had as a younger person that you miss dearly but you know you’ll never do it again? Describe it!
11. On January 20, 2017, the newly inaugurated President of the United States signs a law requiring all Americans to display a coffee-table book prominently in their home. Which one do you put out?

And thanks again, Rebecca, for the award!

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