“We don’t have time to do one thing at a time!”

In a comments thread on another writer’s Instagram feed the other day, the question of how to multi-task as a writer came up. Here is my approach:

Sooner or later in anything written by Aaron Sorkin, somebody will say: “We don’t have time to do one thing at a time!” It’s always uttered in a time of a big flurry of activity, usually by one of Our Heroes, as they gear up for several conflicts at once.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I have first drafts to write and I have existing drafts to edit. I don’t have time to do one thing at a time!

I used to try, of course. I’ve been drafting an Alexandre Dumas-inspired fantasy novel for nearly three years now, which I code-name (for lack of an actual title) The Adventures of Lighthouse Boy (because it deals with the adventures of a young man who, at the beginning of the book, helps his father maintain a lighthouse). I ran into problems with it, because it was taking a long time to write, and I ran into the point when I really needed to work on edits for Stardancer.

So I shelved Lighthouse Boy (also in part because at the time I was having trouble with its story). Then I edited Stardancer and wrote the first draft of Ghostcop (again, not the actual title). Then I returned to Lighthouse Boy. Then I put Lighthouse Boy aside again because I needed to edit The Wisdomfold Path and start writing Forgotten Stars III and edit Ghostcop and so on. Now, I’m back to drafting Lighthouse Boy.

Oh, and another problem: all those times I shelved Lighthouse Boy, I lost touch with the story, so that both times I returned to it, I ended up starting it over.

Now it’s time to edit Forgotten Stars III, do final revisions on Ghostcop, and…well, it doesn’t really matter.

I don’t have time to do one thing at a time.

So, do I shelve Lighthouse Boy yet again? Knowing that I’m going to have to probably restart it yet again if I return to it? Knowing also that the book is my Big Doorstop Fantasy (seriously, this thing is going to be in excess of 200,000 words), my choices are to either keep on drafting it even while I work on other projects, or let all those other projects sit on the back burner until I get this one job done.

Neither of those appeals to me, because I’m also thinking in terms of my career here. I want to release at least one book a year for a while, which means continuing the Forgotten Stars series (with a probable break of two years between Books III and IV), launch the Ghostcop series, launch another space opera series that I haven’t even started yet, and eventually, release Lighthouse Boy, in what format, I’m not sure. (I’ve been thinking about serializing, but that’s for a much later time.)

I simply do not have time to one thing at a time!

So, then: since I have to multitask by working on projects at the same time, how do I do it? Well, I’ve set up a few rules:

1. Only ONE first-draft book at any time.

This is important because I don’t want any co-mingling of voices from one book to the other. The Forgotten Stars books have a tone that’s different from Ghostcop, and I fear that if I try writing a first draft of two books at once, it will be hard to maintain voice. (It may also be hard to maintain consistency, as I think I would almost certainly wind up favoring one book over the other, and that will simply not do.)

2. In a day’s work, the first-draft book gets precedence.

So far, I’ve been pretty good about drafting every day and also editing every day. But if the choice comes up — and occasionally it does, because this is Life and not just Writing — then I have to do the first-draft work first, before I write anything else. This means that my early-morning writing sessions — the 40 minutes or so I write before I get ready for work, from 6:10 to 6:50 am — are exclusively for drafting.

3. When I have to work on two projects per day, I lower the quota on the drafting project to 500 words a day.

This may sound like too much, but for me, it isn’t. Maintaining a daily quota is very important to me. Without one, I end up slacking too much. Usually my quota is 1500 words a day, if I don’t have anything else going on. But for me, 1500 words takes up a nice chunk of time, and it’s too much time if I also need to do some serious editing. Thus I lower it to 500 words, which hey, isn’t that bad anyway! It’s about one page of text in a mass-market paperback, so if you keep that pace for long enough, you can write an entire novel in a year. (Depending on how long your novel is, of course.)

4. Once I achieve the drafting project’s quota for the day, I don’t touch it again until the next day.

I like doing this because it really guards against burnout and keeps me energized on this book. I find that by not allowing myself to go very far beyond the quota (I often wind up around 650-700 words), it’s easier to jump back in the next day. It’s the “keep plugging away” approach: “Slow and steady wins the race”, or should I say, “gets the book written”.

I do raise the quota on weekends to 1000 words each day, and when I get to a point when I’m still drafting this book but the other projects are either caught up or on hold, I’ll up the quota again until things change.

5. Try not to have both projects be in the same genre.

This is important to me. I firmly believe in genre-hopping to keep fresh and interested and engaged, which is why I will never edit one Forgotten Stars book while drafting another.

6. Do first-round edits on a hard copy of the manuscript.

This is because I think it’s good to get the writing away from the computer and the same desk as always and everything. Whenever I finish a first draft, I print it out and put it in a binder; when it’s time to edit (at least three months later), out comes the red pen and I edit the thing. I do this because I think it’s good to get away from the screen once in a while, and there’s still nice tactile senses to working on paper. Now, I don’t know for how many more years this particular approach will be feasible, but we’ll see.

I can probably come up with more rules, but these are my big ones for when I have to maximize the time I have for the more-than-one-job that I have. It’s all about breaking the jobs down, so I can keep moving the ball forward, and it’s about keeping my writing-brain fresh and not tired from all the work I’m doing. Writing can be very tiring on the mental front, but there are hacks to get around that, and these are mine. I firmly believe that you can work on multiple projects at once (well, not exactly at once, but you take my meaning), so long as you plan things out and take a consistent approach.

What do you think, folks? Any other multi-taskers out there?

 

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It’s #AuthorLifeMonth!

There’s quite a wonderful thing going on in the Instagram world this month! It’s one of those daily photo challenges, but this one — hashtagged #AuthorLifeMonth — is geared specifically to writers, as a way of showing off a little of who they are and what they do. And of course I’m participating! I’ll feature my photos for that tag here, throughout the month.

Day 1: Your Books. Here are mine, on my own shelf! How cool is that.

Day 1, #AuthorLifeMonth: My books! If all goes according to plan, there will be four this time next year!

Day 2: Author Pic. I’ve used a different author pic on each book thus far; this is the one I used on the back of The Wisdomfold Path.

Day 2: My author photo. #AuthorLifeMonth (This is my second author photo, used most recently on THE WISDOMFOLD PATH. Thus far I've chickened out on using a pie-in-the-face photo as an author pic!)

Day 3: Your Last Five-Star Read. This one was a little trouble, because I don’t give five stars very often at all. (I’m talking Goodreads ratings here.) For me, five stars is for those few, rare books that are life-changers; books that would be on the list for books I hope I have with me when my ship crashes on that lonely island. I only have a few five-star entries on my Goodreads roster, and of those, none are ones that I’ve read recently. So I went with my most recent addition of a five-star book:

Day 3 of #AuthorLifeMonth: Last 5-star read. I reserve 5 stars for those books that become part of me. I read this many years ago, but I return to it often. Richard Halliburton was an adventurer and writer from the first decades of the 20th century, and h

That is a wonderful book! It’s perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon of reading.

Day Four: Your WIP. Heh! I have two WIPs right now, one that I’m editing (Forgotten Stars III), and one I’m drafting (Lighthouse Boy). One’s a physical copy, and the other exists as a Scrivener project.

Day 4 of #AuthorLifeMonth: My WIPs. Top is the manuscript to FORGOTTEN STARS III, which I'm editing. Bottom is the Scrivener corkboard view of THE ADVENTURES OF LIGHTHOUSE BOY (not the actual title), which I am still drafting (and likely will be for years

More of these to come throughout the month!

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I Am No Writer

I posted this image last week to Instagram, and someone asked about it:

An important distinction. #amwriting
 

What do I mean by this? Why would I claim to not be a writer, but rather a storyteller?

What I mean is simply this: I am more focused on the final product than I am the process. Writing is the job; writing is the work. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, because the writing is necessary. But sticking with my metaphor from my post about first drafts, I find it helpful to maintain my focus not on the laying of the pipe or the pouring of the foundation or the running of the wires, but on the final product: the house. Or, in my case, the story.

It’s the story that’s why I’m doing all this. It’s the story whose needs I have to service. It’s the story that I have to do well. It’s the story that readers will hopefully care about, and it’s the story that I hope will bring them back for the next one.

One can write a lot of things without being a storyteller. Writing is a skill with a lot of possible end goals, and the process can lead in a lot of different directions. And I do think about process a lot — in fact, I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t! But in terms of defining who I am, I choose to focus on the goal and not the process.

Mine is storytelling.

What’s yours?

 

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Confessions of a Writer

So I saw this little quiz-thing on another writer’s blog (Julia Grantham‘s, to be precise), and though I haven’t been tagged with it, I’m not going to wait. So here’s a bit about me as a writer, for anyone who might be new to my particular…idiom!

When did you first start writing? Was being a writer something you always aspired to be?

I’ve loved writing and telling stories for as long as I can remember. I didn’t decide to start taking writing really seriously, though, until the late 1990s, when I started working heavily on a fantasy novel and writing short fiction. Before that, I played around with fan-fiction, but never really decided to get serious until later.

I didn’t decide “Writer or Bust!” until 2009 or 2010, when the idea for The Song of Forgotten Stars started to really heat up in my head.

What genre do you write?

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Mainly the first two. In terms of sci-fi, I really gravitate to space opera.

Can you tell us a little about your current work in progress. When did you start working on this project?

I have two projects going on right now. First is initial edits on the third book in the Forgotten Stars series, in which we explore the mysteries of the planet Xonareth even more deeply. Among other things, in this book we learn why Xonareth was quarantined from the rest of the Galaxy. More importantly, in terms of character, I add Lieutenant Penda Rasharri to the roster of viewpoint characters.

Interestingly — to me, anyway — I realized halfway through this novel that for the duration of this series, every single viewpoint character will be female. Also, the scope of the story seems to be getting bigger with each volume. I’m a bit scared by this; my original dream-goal was a nine-book series, but if this keeps up, my scale by Book IX will be absolutely galactic.

My other project is my long on-again, off-again fantasy novel not-titled The Adventures of Lighthouse Boy, which is a Dumas-inspired adventure tale with sword fights and court intrigue and thieves meeting in the forest and sea battles and lost Kings and hidden treasures and nefarious priests and all that good stuff. There is actually no magic at all in this book; it’s fantasy because it takes place in a realm that never existed, not unlike Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books. I’m writing some of this every day; my quota is 500 words while I’m working on other stuff at the same time, but if the decks are ever clear, the quota will go up to 1000 words or more.

When I’m done editing Forgotten Stars III, then it will be time to start prepping my supernatural thriller for publishing sometime this summer. I think I may have a title for it, but I’m not sure yet. I’m still kicking it around in my head.

What was your first piece that you remember writing? What was it about?

How far do we want to go back? I remember writing a play in fifth grade called How the Elves Saved Christmas (a concept which I still think could make for a fun family flick); around then I wrote a lot of crappy fan-fiction. As in, really crappy fan-fiction. Mashups that had James Bond teaming up with Indiana Jones in outer space. Yeah.

Before that? Well, I wrote stories in second grade about a superhero cat named Little Bootie. I have no idea why he was called that, or why he went around in a costume with a big K on the front. When you’re in second grade, shit don’t have to make sense, yo.

Serious stuff? As in, when I decided to take writing really seriously? I wrote a fantasy novel about King Arthur’s return called The Promised King, and I actually posted half of it online for some years before I decided to re-trunk it, because it wasn’t all that great.

The first story I ever submitted someplace was a vampire tale called “Graveyard Waltz” (name taken from a song by the Hooters). It was rejected, of course, but the rejection got a nice not scrawled in the margin by the editor.

What’s the best part about writing?

When I think my characters are going to do something, and then they go and do something else that’s way cooler than the original thing I’d intended for them to do. I like that.

What’s the worst part about writing?

Well…look, I’m not going to lie here. I’m an indie writer, which means that my job is even harder. It means that I’ve seen entire months go by with no one buying either of my books. It means watching my second book languish with a single Amazon review, when I know it’s better than the first one. It means seeing my stories not being read, and that kills me, because stories should be read. A story told to no one isn’t really worth a lot, in my mind. At least, for me it isn’t, at this point in my life.

I’ve really been struggling with this lately. I’ve been told that I should write first for myself, but lately I’m trying to find the difference between writing first for myself and writing only for myself.

Oh, and titles. I take forever to come up with titles, which is why I have all those weird working titles. I’m not being coy. I genuinely don’t often know what the title is.

What’s the name of your favorite character and why? (This can be from a book by another author or from your own work.)

My personal favorite character? Oh wow, I couldn’t really name one. But for purposes of this question, I do like writing the character Zeyke in the Forgotten Stars books. He’s a pilot who is very, very good at what he does, but he’s also a nervous worry-wart who is always convinced that utter disaster is seconds away and that he will bear the brunt of it. I’ve given him a very sarcastic tone, and he has managed to make me laugh with some of the fatalistic sarcasm he brings to bear. He’s fun to write.

How much time a day/week do you get to write? When is the best time for you to write (morning or night)?

There is no “best” time. There is only the time that there is, and I use it as best I can. Weekdays, that means I get up at 5:30, so that after coffee and making lunch and getting dressed and all that, checking to make sure the Internet is still there, and such, I get half an hour in before work. Then, later on, I like to use my lunch break at work to write another half hour, and then I cram in a bit more time later on at night. You have to fit the writing in. It’s not hard to do so, but it does involve some choice-making.

Weekends, I can get more done. I like to go to the grocery store where I shop and work in their cafe for two hours before I shop, and I usually get in some time on Sunday afternoons after Nature Walk with the dog.

Did you go to college for writing?

No. I majored in Philosophy. I’m really unsure if that was a mistake or not.

What bothers you more: spelling errors, punctuation errors, or grammar errors?

It depends. Grammar, I can usually deal with, especially if it’s clear to me that the author has made a stylistic choice, and frankly, I’m not always up on all the particulars of grammar, anyway. I’m not likely to notice if you use ‘laid’ when you should have used ‘lain’, for example.

Spelling or punctuation? If it’s clear that it’s just a typo or odd goof, I’m fine. It takes a pattern of such behavior to make me start to notice and distract me from the story. Today I read an author refer to a character’s “jealous”. It’s obvious to me that she meant “jealousy” and for whatever reason, the ‘y’ is MIA. I’m fine with that.

What is the best writing advice that anyone has given you?

Read a lot, write a lot, and write the book that you want to read.

What advice would you give to another writer?

Don’t.

OK, I’m kidding. Seriously: read a lot, write a lot, and write the book that you want to read.

And get your ass out of the chair once in a while and go walk. Take pictures, do…something other than writing.

What are your favorite writing sites or blogs that you turn to for help, tips, or encouragement?

Mostly the sites of fellow writers.

Besides writing, what else do you enjoy doing? What are your hobbies?

Reading, listening to music, and walking in the woods. Hiking is peaceful and energizing and restorative to me. I also enjoy cooking, and movies, and comics.

What is the best book you’ve read this year?

Carrie Morgan’s The Road Back from Broken is really good. (My Goodreads review here.)

What is the best movie you’ve seen this year?

Probably The Force Awakens? Not really sure, actually. My reaction to that movie was pretty schizophrenic. There are a lot of things I love in it, and a lot of things that set my teeth on edge. I have yet to write my full review of it.

What is your favorite book or series of all time?

Living author, fiction: The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Deceased author, fiction: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (I consider these one large work; I never re-read LOTR without also reading The Hobbit.)
Living author, nonfiction: Little Chapel on the River, Gwendolyn Bounds
Deceased author, nonfiction: Cosmos, Carl Sagan

Who is your favorite author?

Oh, I’ll give a list: Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, Carl Sagan, Neil De Grasse Tyson, Bill Bryson, Christopher Moore, Stephen King, Alexandre Dumas, Mary Stewart, Jacqueline Carey, and more.

What are your plans for the rest of the year in terms of your writing?

Pedal to the metal on the afore-mentioned projects! I hope to have Forgotten Stars III out in November and GhostCop (not actual title) in summer, either July or August. I want to finish Lighthouse Boy, but that one is a splurging doorstop of a book, so who knows. I may well take a year-long sabbatical from the Forgotten Stars books, once number III is out. I also have another idea for a second set of stories set in the same universe (it’s a big galaxy, after all), and I’m hoping that GhostCop is the start of a series, but where it goes from there, I’ve no idea just yet!

I’ve got a lot of stories to tell, and intentions to tell all of them. The hard part is finding readers, but I’ll keep plugging. It’s all I know how to do, really.

Where else can we find you online?

Right here! And on most of the Social Media Usual Suspect sites — links are in the sidebar, over there. (Right now I’m on a brief social media hiatus, but I doubt very much I’ll abandon anything; I just needed a break.) Oh, and that reminds me: I’ve started using Pinterest again, although I’m still not entirely sure how Pinterest really ‘works’.

OK, that’s all for this…have a great weekend, read my books, and yada yada yada!

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Updates and a Quick Stroll Around the Writing Neighborhood!

Hey all! I hope that 2016 is starting to settle into some good of good groove for you all, now that the bustle of the Holiday season is over. I’m always bummed out, a little, when the Holidays end; for all the hectic activity and commercialism, the Holidays always do seem to me like a time when we all try to make the world feel (and look) a bit better. Plus, this year my family had a truly wonderful Holiday season, starting with a trip to New York City at Thanksgiving and culminating in a Christmas with my entire family (it’s a small family, but my sister lives in Colorado and doesn’t get out here more than a few times a year, so that’s that).

The Holiday season was not particularly helpful to me on the writing front, however, and I suspect that many writers find themselves in the same boat. It’s hard enough to carve out writing time during the standard work-and-life routine of, say, March or September; throw in the Holidays, and yeesh! One has to become some kind of beast akin to a wounded, rabid, female grizzly bear whose young are being threatened in order to protect the writing time.

(And this year, it didn’t help that an 800-pound gorilla going by the name of The Force Awakens showed up.)

So, I’m now back in some kind of writing groove. What’s happening?

Well, I’m working on two projects at once. This may prove to be…unwise, but we’ll see.

First up is that I’m still plugging away on The Adventures of Lighthouse Boy. This book has stalled a few times when I put it aside in order to delve into serious editing work on other books (mainly the Forgotten Stars books), but I don’t want that to happen again, so I’ve dropped my quota down to 500 words a day on it, with the caveat that I have to get those 500 words before I do anything else.

Second up are the revisions to The Song of Forgotten Stars III. This has been tough going thus far, because the first few chapters are an absolute mess that I’ve been working to untangle.

I wrote Stardancer entirely from Princess Tariana’s point of view. In The Wisdomfold Path, I added Princess Margeth’s POV. Now, in this one, we add the third important viewpoint character: Lieutenant Rasharri. Problem was, I did a lot of POV-hopping in the first few chapters, as opposed to just doing what George RR Martin does with his Song of Ice and Fire novels, giving each chapter a single viewpoint. So that’s what I’m doing, but I have to rework those messy first chapters. I suspect that the revisions will go much more smoothly one I’m past the first few chapters.

(And here’s a tidbit: It occurred to me, halfway through drafting Book III, that in this series, every single viewpoint character will be female. I don’t know that this means anything, but I found it an interesting angle.)

So, that’s where we are right now! What are other writers up to? Let’s take a quick stroll around the Writing World!

Nicole Crucial on Following Your Gut in a First Draft. Her post is a response to this post of mine, and she has some interesting thoughts!

Brianna Da Silva has a list: 10 Traits of an Epic Villain. Villains are hard to get right, and Brianna has some great thoughts. For me, it’s important to remind myself that there is an alt-universe version of all of my stories in which the villain is the protagonist. Except for the most mustache-twirling of villains, they think of themselves as heroes of their own story, and I like it best when the villain is — just a little, just a teensy-weensy bit — actually right about things, even if their actions are awful. Good post here!

Joe Hill dismantles the cliche of the “crazy artist”. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s knockdown of the idea that writers and artists need to be substance abusers: “We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.” It’s apt that Hill’s piece would remind me of this, as King is Hill’s father. (I didn’t even know this until recently.)

Katherine Dell had some struggles with getting back into her routine. I can relate to this. Sometimes, after the weeks-long spectacle that is the Holidays, I find myself having trouble even remembering what the “routine” is.

Ilana Teitelbaum on self-promotion. I have improved my skills of self-promotion, going from awful to pretty bad. I’m hoping to reach Meh by the time Forgotten Stars III comes out.

Finally, Brett Michael Orr’s novel The Bureau of Time is now available! I haven’t read it yet, but it’s safely ensconced on my mobile devices and on my TBR List for this year. Orr’s one of the good guys, and I can’t wait to see what he’s come up with. Apparently it’s a YA science fiction/time travel adventure, and we can always use more of those!

See you next time, folks!

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A Brief Trip Around Writing Blogistan

Here are some things that I’ve seen around the neighborhood of the Blogistan Writing Community:

  1. Briana Morgan released her first book, Blood and Water, a month or two back (I read several chapters of it in draft, and if the final version — which is on my To Read list — is as good, it’s a keeper), and now she is selling signed copies. (Note to self: Get off arse and start offering signed copies!)
  2. Ksenia Anske (whose site needs to be on your “Visit several times weekly” list now) has thoughts on how writers shoot themselves in the foot by not making their books discoverable.
  3. Shelly Muncaster has reasons for not doing NaNoWriMo. She makes an important point: NaNoWriMo might not be for you. If you’re genuinely vexed by it, there is zero shame in not participating! NaNoWriMo should be a source of fun and good work and camaraderie, not for beating oneself up.
  4. EJ Fisch discusses, amongst other things, how she has used her workspace in her day job as a way of marketing herself as a writer. This reminds me of something I read in a book years ago, which was assigned reading for a sales job I had. (I was terrible at it and eventually got fired, but that’s a tale for another time.) The guy writing the book discussed how he put his sales award certificates and photos of himself meeting various dignitaries on the wall behind his desk, so his prospects could see them as he talked with them. He was using his own walls as sales space. Always a good idea! I’m not sure how well I could do this sort of thing at my workplace — my own workspace is very tiny, with almost no wall space to speak of — but it’s worth thinking about.
  5. SK Waller (one of the first writing-peeps I ever met, over ten years ago, in the course of blogging!), had some observations on how trying NaNoWriMo impacted her own usual process. She’s not a plow-ahead-and-revise-later type of writer, so she had some trouble getting out of the block. (She did eventually win, though!)

That’s about all for now. Moving forward, I’ll try to do more of this sort of thing. Excelsior, Stardancers!

 

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On Fanfic, and on Writing as Play

Pew! Pew! Pew!
So there was a thing the other day on Twitter in which a lot of writers were suddenly defending the idea of writing fan fiction. I didn’t understand why at first, but as far as I can tell, someone wrote an article somewhere – I think for a teen-oriented publication of some sort, whether print or web I don’t know – attacking the idea of writing fanfic. Now, I did not read the article in question, or even track it down, because…well, I’m not so interested in refuting specific points. I’d rather just generally say that no, writing fanfic is not a complete waste of time, except in one kind of scenario that I can think of. And that is simply this: if you are talented enough to write your own stories from scratch, and you have the desire to write your own stories from scratch, but you instead choose to write fanfic instead.

And you know what? Even then I don’t think it’s right to say that it’s a waste of time, because it’s your time.

Even so, not everyone approaches writing the same way. If you just enjoy spinning your own stories and you have no real aim for them other than to please yourself, then hey, why not indulge a bit of fanfic? There are less-productive hobbies to have, and I suspect that for a lot of folks who write fanfic, the act of doing so scratches the same kind of itch that, say, playing a role-playing game does for others. It indulges a human need for story and for interaction with a fictional universe in a way that is, for those who enjoy writing, sometimes deeply satisfying.

I wrote fanfic for years, too, and I have my own thoughts on the subject, because I think fan-fiction can be useful as a learning tool for writing original stories later on.

One of my favorite podcasts is Functional Nerds, a podcast featuring writer Patrick Hester and musician John Anealio. The podcast generally features interviews with writers or other kinds of content creators in the SF, fantasy, and horror worlds, and I strongly recommend it. A favorite installment of mine featured author Mary Robinette Kowal as the guest, and she spent a lot of that particular podcast talking about writing and how to teach it. The general thrust of the episode, as framed by an early question by Anealio, was in breaking writing down into specific parts or facets. Lots of times when writers are asked what the best way to learn to write is, they’ll appeal to a Zen-like approach and say that you just have to sit down and do it. And that’s true, to an extent…but as a musician, Anealio looks at art in terms of more basic things. All music students, no matter what instrument they play, start off by learning scales, because scales are the basic building blocks of Western music, and every musician continues practicing scales for the rest of their lives.

So he asked Kowal this question: “What are the ‘scales’ of writing, and how do you practice them?”

Kowal indicated that she rejects the “holistic” approach to learning to write, and describes a number of ways one can break down the task of writing in order to focus on one particular area: description, characterization, and so on. I think that fanfic can serve the same kind of purpose, especially for people who want to write stories in a fantasy or science-fiction universe.

With fanfic, the basic world-building work is already done. If you write a Star Trek story, you know what your ground-rules are. You know that there’s a United Federation of Planets, and a Klingon Empire, and a Romulan Empire, and there are Ferengi about and that starships can go as fast as “Warp 10” and that Vulcans are a civilization organized around principles of logic and that Dr. McCoy’s first name is Leonard and that Jim Kirk was born in Iowa and so on. There’s a lot of heavy lifting that you simply do not need to do.

Or suppose you want to write your own Lord of the Rings stories, set in Middle Earth. Well, here you’ve got the maps and the races and even the languages already laid out. And ditto any other fictional universe or setting or other fanfic enterprise.

Writing fanfic was not a waste of time for me because I taught myself a lot of things about story construction, about pacing, and structure in those tales. Dialogue? Check. Making characters sound distinct, and making them “true” to themselves? Absolutely! I couldn’t very well have Mr. Spock having a temper-tantrum (at least, not without explaining it), or have Indiana Jones show up in a 1980s-era space tale, or James Bond suddenly be a wise-cracking, sarcastic buffoon. Anyone who takes their fanfic seriously wants it to feel authentic, right? And that takes work and consideration of the universe and what’s known about the people in it.

Now, I wasn’t thinking along those lines when I was writing them. My pseudo-Star Wars tales weren’t “exercises”, in my mind; I was just having fun writing. But you can’t write without learning about writing, and it turns out that ideas that start out as fanfic ideas can often have the serial numbers filed off and repurposed. After all, that’s a big part of what I did for Stardancer.

No, I do not consider fanfic a waste of time. Do I still write it? Not really, although I can’t rule it out – I did, after all, write a pretty darn good (if I do say so myself) “Very Special Christmas Episode” of Firefly a few years back, which I re-post on my personal blog every year. Yes, I might have achieved more, earlier, had I focused on original work before stepping beyond fanfic, but then, I might not. I did learn a good deal, though, and ultimately, all that fanfic I wrote cultivated in me a deep sense that writing is, even when it’s hardest and even when I’m working at it as hard as I work at anything else, play. Writing as play, in the best sense of the word. Fanfic is where I developed my sense that writing should give me the same feeling that I had on those Saturday afternoons when, as a kid, I and some other friends would pretend that the refrigerator boxes in their garage were spaceships.

Yes, you learn technical skills from fanfic, and I think it’s worth indulging on that basis alone. But you also connect with story and you play with it. And dammit, writing should be play! It took me a long time to realize this, but I finally did. Writing is where I scratch the itch that was once served by those afore-mentioned refrigerator boxes. Writing is where I find the kind of mental place where once I played with action figures and toy spaceships. Remember how annoying it was when you and some friends would be really into a play session of some make-believe or another, and Mom would come along and interrupt and snap you out of the illusion you’d created in your mind? Well, that’s the exact same feeling as having the phone ring during a really good writing session.

So, go ahead and write your fan fiction. If that’s the only writing you ever do, but you have a blast doing it…then you win. And if you do eventually start writing your own work, bringing to it the same sense of fun and play that you had when you were really engaging your earlier fan fiction…then you win!

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On Character, part the second

Hello, all! Time for another post on characters and how to approach them…or how I approach them…or, in this case, how another writer approached them.

So let’s talk about Calvin and Hobbes.

This legendary comic strip is still well known today, despite that fact that its creator, Bill Watterson, ended it nearly twenty years ago (in fact, this coming December 31 will mark the 20th anniversary of the final strip of Calvin and Hobbes). Watterson created a bunch of interesting and memorable characters, and at the center of it all was six-year-old Calvin and his beloved stuffed tiger, who in Calvin’s presence (and only in Calvin’s presence) was a living, breathing being.

Calvin was not very well-behaved. He wasn’t focused in school, he engaged in all manner of shenanigans that got him in trouble constantly, and he wasn’t terribly nice to the little girl down the street. In these particulars, he probably wasn’t all that different from a lot of six-year-old little boys, and while it’s tempting to read into Calvin’s psychology (and yes, you can find a lot of such commentary online), it’s best to realize that it’s all fiction and that Calvin likely is the star of a comedy strip, and not a real kid desperately in need of a truckload of Ritalin.

Watterson does not depict Calvin solely by his negative qualities, though, and it’s telling that those negative qualities seem to only come out when Calvin is forced to engage with other people. Ultimately Calvin is something of a loner, and when he’s allowed to do his own thing, he is depicted as an amazingly creative and imaginative little boy. Mostly this drives everyone around him to distraction, but occasionally people notice that it’s a good thing. There’s one strip that has Calvin imagining that he is A GOD, creating a world out of nothing…and then we cut to his parents in the last panel. Dad says, “Have you seen how absorbed Calvin is with those Tinkertoys? He’s making whole worlds in there!” And his Mom replies, “I’ll bet he grows up to be an architect.” (Of course, they don’t know that Calvin is imagining wreaking his evil vengeance upon the world as a God of the Underworld, but what they won’t know won’t hurt them.)

I read an article some months ago — which I didn’t bookmark and now I can’t find to save my life — that seemed to argue, if I recall correctly, that Watterson erred in ending an early story arc in the C&H run. This arc had Calvin’s Uncle Max (his father’s brother) come to visit, during which time he stuck around and made some commentary on Calvin’s tendency to being a loner and attachment to an “imaginary” friend and so on. The article argued (and again, I may have this very wrong) that Uncle Max represented an opportunity to show Calvin’s continued “growth” in some way. Watterson, on the other hand, recognized Max as a storytelling mistake. In his Tenth Anniversary book, Watterson wrote this about Uncle Max:

I regret introducing Uncle Max into the strip. At the time, I thought a new character related to the family would open up story possibilities: the family could go visit Max, and so on. After the story ran, I realized that I hadn’t established much identity for Max, and that he didn’t bring out anything new in Calvin. The character, I concluded, was redundant. It was also very awkward that Max could not address Calvin’s parents by name, and this should have tipped me off that the strip was not designed for the parents to have outside adult relationships. Max is gone.

That’s pretty insightful. A good character isn’t a good character in and of him or herself. A good character isn’t just well-developed and realistic and memorable and all those other things. A good character must serve the story and fit into the story’s world and tone. A character who doesn’t do those things is not a good character. Unfortunately for Watterson, he realized his error with Uncle Max after the character had already appeared in print, so he couldn’t just strike him from the record, could he? So now, Uncle Max is a real thing, complete with fan speculations and whatnot. (Someone out there has a pet theory that Uncle Max and “Lyman”, a disappeared-character of similar appearance from Garfield, are the same person. I am not making that up, either.)

Max doesn’t fit in the Calvin and Hobbes universe because about the only thing he can offer in terms of storytelling possibilities is a new setting for Calvin’s adventures as a loner, and that’s a pretty lame reason to have yet another outside person to be flummoxed by Calvin’s oddities. The person arguing that Max could have been a key, in some way, to Calvin maturing over time was missing a very huge point.

However, something else interesting happened as the strip neared its conclusion. Watterson eventually did allow a single outside character, and only one outside character, into Calvin’s world. He did this on an extremely limited basis (this character did not suddenly see Hobbes as a real tiger), but this storyline — one of my favorites in the entire run — was the only time I can remember an outside person interacting with Calvin on Calvin’s terms. That person was Rosalyn, Calvin’s embattled babysitter.

Rosalyn was a recurring character whose appearance on the scene always meant funny things were afoot. Her story arcs would run over the course of several days as each time Calvin did something else to get in trouble, make Rosalyn’s night miserable, and amuse the readers with all manner of hijinks. Rosalyn was also smart as a whip; having recognized the inherent lucrative nature of being the only neighborhood babysitter willing to supervise Calvin, she priced her services accordingly, much to the chagrin of Calvin’s dad, who knew that he was getting taken advantage of and could literally do nothing about it.

The last time Rosalyn showed up, the story started in pretty typical fashion. We know what’s going to happen: Rosalyn is going to threaten Calvin with doom if he misbehaves, and he’s going to misbehave anyway, and the night is doomed.

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However, things go slightly differently, as Rosalyn has a different plan:

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Calvin actually meets his end of this bargain (and God bless Watterson’s memory of how big an incentive it can be for a kid, being allowed to stay up late, even just half an hour), and Rosalyn meets hers: allowing Calvin to pick his favorite game to play. Now, she is undoubtedly expecting him to pick Sorry! or Monopoly or some such board game, but of course, Calvin picks Calvinball.

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Calvinball, for those possibly unfamiliar with the strip, is a game whose one and only rule is the rules are never the same each time out. Rosalyn, of course, has absolutely no idea what to expect, but into the game she goes, quickly picking up the “rules”:

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Rosalyn is actually engaging Calvin on his own terms here, and again, as far as I can recall this is the only time this happens with any outside person at all in the history of the strip. It’s really quite fascinating, since by its nature, Calvin and Hobbes is really fairly static in terms of character development for its entire run. Yes, we see different aspects of Calvin’s character over the years, but he never really changes, and that’s as much a necessity of the medium as anything else. (How much did Charlie Brown or Lucy ever change? Or Dagwood? Or Garfield? Or….) But here, we see definite change in one key way: Calvin finds a way (without looking) to connect with Rosalyn, and she finds a way to connect with him. As this story progresses, the water balloon is there, ready to be thrown at someone, and I remember thinking at the time that the water balloon was going to the source of Calvin getting in trouble this time, but then Rosalyn uses the “rules” of Calvinball to her advantage:

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There’s a wonderful coda to this storyline when Calvin’s parents get home and ask how things went, and Rosalyn says something like “Fine! Calvin did his homework, we played a game, and he went to bed,” to which Dad replies, “I’m in no mood for jokes!” He’s utterly convinced, you see, that this night will be like all the others and he’s coming home to an angry babysitter and his misbehaving kid.

(By the way, if you want to read this entire storyline — I don’t include each installment here — start here and click forward. There’s a Sunday strip in there that does not pertain to the Rosalyn storyline.)

Now, is Rosalyn a great character? Not particularly, because like everyone else, we only get to see her through the prism of Calvin and his reactions to her, but she does make possible some great moments along the way. Watterson wisely used her sparingly, noting that each time she showed up there was a sense that he had to outdo himself. With this story, Rosalyn does something no one else has done: she has entered Calvin’s world. It’s telling that this was the last time Rosalyn appeared before the strip ended. I don’t know if Bill Watterson wanted to have someone pull off this feat before he wrapped things up, but for my money, Rosalyn was really the only character who could have done this. For one thing, it’s completely unexpected, but for another, it’s done in the perfect way.

One last observation on this: Watterson also wisely knew what he could do with his characters when. This is important. He couldn’t have this story be the first one when Rosalyn showed up, because then there would be an underlying sympathy for her every time thereafter. This story could only be the last Rosalyn story. Likewise, the James Bond stories can’t start with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Macbeth can’t start with Macbeth having usurped the throne, and so on. The audience has to be prepared to go where the characters are going, and if the characters go there before the audience is — or even can be — ready, then the story is going to feel forced and false.

And with that, I’ll have done. Thanks for hanging in there, and hey! Over the next few weeks, I’ll start dripping out some real concrete information and teaser stuff pertaining to The Wisdomfold Path! November 10 is coming, folks!

 

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On Character, part the first

Writers love to rabbit on and on all day about their characters and how they develop their characters and how they decide what characters do and all that kind of thing. I, of course, am no different. This will, though, require more than one post, hence “part the first”.

So, where to start?

Well, with someone else’s thoughts on characters, of course! In this case, screenwriter William Goldman.

This is occasioned by a post by blogger Lance Mannion, in which he reviews the movie The Ghost and the Darkness. I never actually saw this film, but I know of it; it is a historical adventure movie about the two man-eating lions that terrorized the British railroad crews in Africa many years ago, and the struggles the railroad chief had with killing them. (The lions themselves, after being killed, were stuffed and are now on display in a Chicago museum, believe it or not…and they are a bit scary. But this post isn’t about the lions; it’s about Goldman’s thoughts on the characters in the movie.

The Ghost and the Darkness is not terribly highly regarded, either by critics or by Goldman himself. My impression is that it’s not seen as a bad movie, but mainly as a meh movie. Goldman has some very definite thoughts as to why this is, and he lays some of that blame at his own feet in the chapter on this movie in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? (which, by the way, I consider essential reading for fiction writers, even if they’re not writing for film).

By way of background before I excerpt Goldman: it took the railroad chief, a man named Patterson, nine months to kill the two lions, and he mainly did it by waiting and sitting vigil at night and laying traps and that sort of thing. Goldman’s problem, in scripting a movie about the lions of Tsavo (where this all happened), was that the real story doesn’t make for compelling film. So Goldman had to add a second, entirely fictional, character whom he dubbed “Redbeard”, to add excitement and drama to the story.

Here, now, is William Goldman.

Redbeard was always and forever only this: a plot point. I needed, for today’s audience, to make Patterson, my hero, more heroic. So I came up with what I thought would be a suitable device.

Redbeard would be a professional who came, did his job, moved on when the job was over. There were, in point of face, people who lived that way. Hunting was popular among the very rich, and there were men for hire if you were a Russian prince and wanted to shoot in America. Or Africa. Or the mountains of India. You hired them for weeks or months, and they saw you get the best chance at game. Protected you in the bargain.

What made Redbeard different was he was a legend even to other professionals. In other words, the greatest hunter in the world.

In the very first draft, his part was relatively small. Patterson was in terrible trouble. The lions had stopped the railroad. Redbeard entered, sized up the situation. Now, I couldn’t have him win immediately, because that would have denigrated the lions. So…he came up with the notion of putting Patterson high up, all alone, in a clearing, on a rickety wooden support. Patterson is alone and helpless. Redbeard is in the area. The Ghost [one of the lions, the other being The Darkness] comes. Then the Ghost attacks, Redbeard wounds it, together they kill it and triumph.

The point now was for the audience to relax. The cavalry had come to the rescue.

Then, the next morning, when Redbeard is eaten, Patterson, poor helpless fellow, would be alone against The Darkness, what chance could he possibly have if even Redbeard had failed?

The fact is this: Redbeard worked as a device.

My problem, Doctor, was he worked too well. In all the succeeding drafts, the powers that be wanted more of him. Obviously, they saw a costarring part. Fine for them.

Biiiig problem for me.

Let me try and explain why.

[In this telling, Redbeard sounds similar to Quint, the grizzled fisherman in JAWS. Or, that’s how he should have been. Reading on….]

One of the great exchanges in movie history — I don’t mean ‘great’ in the sense of Shakespearean, because screenwriting isn’t about that; I mean ‘great’ in the sense of being supremely helpful, of defining character — anyway, it’s in Casablanca, by the Epsteins and Howard Koch. Probably you remember the moment. Bogart is talking to Claude Rains in front of his club.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brings you to Casablanca?

BOGART: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

RAINS: Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

BOGART: I was misinformed.

Let’s talk about this for a moment. First of all, it is wonderfully elegant dialogue. Witty, plus it makes you laugh out loud. I wish to God I’d written lines as glorious as “I was misinformed.”

But what does it tell us? Well, it could be telling us that Rick is geographically challenged, coming to the desert for a water cure. But I think “I was misinformed” tells us he knew exactly where he was.

What it tells us is this: Don’t ask. What is tells us is: Bad things happened, it’s dark down there, and I will die before I tell you. A lot of that comes from the dialogue, a lot from the speaker of the dialogue.

The character of Rick, of course, is very old — he is the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past. Most movie stars — actors, not comedians — have essentially all played the same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways–

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.

Let me rewrite that exchange for you now. Let’s say Rains is talking not to Bogart, but to Dooley Wilson.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brought Rick to Casablanca?

DOOLEY: You don’t want to know.

RAINS: But I do, I asked the question.

DOOLEY: His life turned to shit, Claude. He hated his job, but he should never have sold insurance in the first place. And then his wife, she died having their hid, who died too. He got so depressed, y’know? [This continues a bit…snipping it down.]

Think about what that does to one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies. It makes Rick a wimp. It makes him a loser. Kills the flick, ruins it, destroys it, makes it an Adam Sandler flick. Never forget the following:

Hollywood heroes must have mystery.

OK, Back to Billy’s little Redbeard problem. I had written a Byronic hero. He’s Shane. The village is in trouble, he rides in, saves it, rides out. For that very great Western directed by the very great George Stevens, it is crucial that we know nothing about the guy. Ever.

The bigger Redbeard’s part became, the more risk for me, because the more you expose that character to the sunlight, the more he starts to fade.

Skipping forward a little, Michael Douglas comes on board as a producer and to play the Great Hunter role, originally named “Redbeard”. This is where Goldman finds things going awry:

The first thing that went was the name.

No big deal, you are probably thinking, and of course, you are correct. It is not a big deal. Except writers are nuts — that is a law in the State of California as you no doubt know — and we love the names we give our made-up friends and acquaintances. A lot of us can’t even start until we know our people’s names.

I loved “Redbeard.” I thought it was a terrific name; and I thought it was helpful in trying to make the guy mythic. Just that single word, those two syllables and you were talking about someone whose exploits had filled the nights beside a thousand campfires.

I lucked into the name Remington pretty quickly. Sold myself that if not as good, at least it didn’t suck. Still the one word, and there was the echo of the gun that was so famous in settling the Wild West.

Sigh of relief.

Then, sharply, I was into nightmare.

Michael wanted Remington to have a history.

 

This next scene is one of the worst things I’ve ever written. I actually remember my stomach cramping when I did it. It comes the first night Michael Douglas has arrived to save the day. In the background, a bunch of warriors are getting ready  to jump around and give themselves courage. Douglas is talking to Kilmer and Samuel, who is the narrator of the film, a native helping Patterson as best he can. Another native comes up and indicates to Remington that they are ready. Remington leaves and the camp doctor, who has also been present, comments that Remington is indeed a strange man. Here is what Samuel replies to that — get ready, hold your noses.

SAMUEL: Two great tribes of his country fought a terrible civil war for many years.

VAL KILMER: And his side lost?

SAMUEL: Everything. Land and family. The very young ones and the very old ones. All lost. He buried his family and left his country forever. Now he hunts all over the world but he always returns here. He says Africa is the last good place.

Remember my made-up speech about Bogart taking a course in nightclub management? Same thing here. This is what that speech and ensuing references to Remington’s past do to this legendary figure: They make Remington a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what — they play it as it lays.

This little speech may not seem like much but not only does it cast a pall over everything that follows, it destroys the fabric of the piece. Every ensuing mention of Remington and children and loss is all so treacly you want to whoopsie. Never forget the following:

Movie stars must have mystery.

Now, Goldman is primarily concerned with movie characters here, and while there are different concerns when writing for movies as opposed to writing novels or plays or teevee or whatever, storytelling is still storytelling. You’ve got to do right by your characters and you’ve got to do right by your audience, whether they’re sitting in the dark watching your tale or sitting by the sea reading it. Every character has a backstory, but there really are times when it’s best to not delve too deeply into it. (This is one reason I’m a little nervous about the idea of one of these one-shot Star Wars movies being a “Young Han Solo” story.)

I will, of course, return to the subject of characters in the future. This was only a start, dear readers!

 

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A Few Things!

A couple of items of possible interest:

Item the FIRST: I’ve been working on getting Stardancer available on more platforms than just the Kindle, and I can now report initial success: the book is now available for Nook, right here! Zap! Pow!!

Item the SECOND: Now that Stardancer is no longer Kindle-exclusive, I can also repost sample chapters. To that end, Chapters 1 through 3 are now available on Wattpad!

Item the THIRD: I always dreamed of having success to the level of being a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Sadly, that can no longer happen (although we’ll see how this Trevor Noah fellow does), but I can still imagine! And what I can imagine, I can write. Hence, this guest post of mine on writer Briana Mae Morgan’s blog. Check it out!

That’s about it for right now. More stuff in the hopper, though! Stay tuned, Star Warriors!

 

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