Archive for the ‘Writing Process’ Category

A Pen Too Far

April 11, 2018

I write jokes for a living, I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.  — Mitch Hedberg, Mitch All Together (2003)

It’s often difficult for me to fall asleep.  Odds are, if I finish this tonight, it will be because I am having trouble falling asleep.  All of my best ideas come to me at night. Over the past few nights, I’ve thought of a way of breaking the stalemate I have with my current work in progress, delved back into a work that I abandoned several years ago, thought of a plot to a new project, and (most recently) started drafting out a speech that I am giving in September.  Tonight, my mind went back to that speech, as well as thinking of a different way I would have approached teaching a book back when I was still a teacher. I even dreamt up this post before falling asleep last night.

I perpetually have a problem with getting these ideas onto (virtual) paper. The problem is that life, and sleep, often get in the way of my writing. I’ve kept a note pad or journal under my side of the bed.  Both are mostly empty.  I may be tempted to write something down, but I am usually so desperate in my desire to fall asleep that I will gladly forgo that brilliant idea if it means that I will get to sleep faster.  I guess that pen is just too far away from where I want to go.

If it’s closer to the middle of the day, I have been known to use a dictation app on my iPod while at lunch or on a break.  If things are really desperate, I might write something in the margins of some scratch paper and hope that it doesn’t go out with the recycling. However, I pride myself in staying on task at work, and will only resort to such tactics if the creative part of my brain simply won’t shut up.  It’s not like a pen is too far when I’m sitting at my desk, but that’s not what I’m paid to do.

During NaNoWriMo, and especially just prior to the time change, I have been known to sty up until 1am and strike while the iron is hot. However, that is typically much more than jotting a few notes down on a page.  Back when I was teaching, this was an impossibility, as every night was a struggle just to get all of the work I needed to get done finished by midnight.  For that one magical, crazy month, nothing is too far away when it comes to my work in progress.

After several nights of wrestling with this struggle between getting to that pen and getting to sleep for what feels like hours, I thought of the Mitch Hedberg quote above.  Yes, I am guilty of that.  What about you?  What do you do when the creative part of your brain is operating at all cylinders while you’re trying to eat, sleep, shower, work, or otherwise go about your day?  When is this need to distance yourself from your creative ideas the worst? Feel free to leave your strategies in the comments section below.


Make Writing a Practice

July 17, 2017

“Listen, we’re talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, we talking about practice.” – Allen Iverson, 2002

Outside of writing, my one most consistent hobby over the years has been playing basketball.  For the past six years, I’ve been a part of an ever-changing group of guys that gets together once a week to shoot hoops at a local gym.  There’s a few hard-liners from when I arrived on the scene — men who are now in their forties or fifties and have been playing together since long before I knew any of them.  When I was showing up regularly, getting my shots in, and taking care of everything else, I was playing good basketball — not the best of my life, but far better than you’d expect for someone who’d spent the better part of a decade away from the game.

Now, as one of the relative old-timers, I’ve seen a lot of players come and go.  A few years ago, a trio of brothers started playing with us.  The baby brother, one who was far more athletic than his older brothers, was like a puppy running across the court.  Then in his early twenties, he had only fairly recently picked up basketball as a hobby, and it showed.  He could run circles around most of us old codgers, could nearly touch the rim from a standing start, and had some of the quickest hands and feet in the gym.  Sure, he’d draw blood half of the time he tried to steal the ball, but there was no getting around this kid’s athleticism.  The problem was that he didn’t know basketball.  He’d pick up the ball and travel half of the time he tried to drive to the basket, and you didn’t need to defend him for any shot outside of (maybe) ten feet; you simply needed to box him out for the miss.  Even lay-ups were somewhat of a 50-50 proposition.

After the brothers were established as regulars, they started to miss a few games; months passed by and I didn’t see the little brother.  Part of it came down to a few absences on my part, and part of it came down to a change in his work schedule.  Then, one day, he was back on the court.  I was guarding him, and he pulled up from about 20-feet away (we don’t have a three point arc, so it’s tough to say).  I waited for the shot release and immediately boxed him out.  There was no need.  Swish.  A few plays later, he tried the same thing, but I was guarding him for the shot.  He put the ball on the floor, and got around me.  A friend came over to help me on defense, and this young man pulled up for a fifteen footer.  Maybe he banked it in, I don’t remember.  What I do remember is thinking “uh-oh, now this guy can shoot.  What do I do now?”

At the end of the night, after he finished piling up the points, I asked him if he’d been working on his shot.  He said “not particularly, but I’ve been playing every day.”

Sometimes, I forget how much impact an everyday habit can make. However, seeing this young man go from a “kid” who looked like he’d never played the game to a legitimate scoring threat made me realize that many of the players on the floor were still improving because they were able to get there on the hardwood/blacktop every day.  Writing is very much like playing pick-up basketball every day.  You won’t win every time, and there’s a lot of “meaningless games” in between you and your goal, but turning in 100 words per day or 2,000 words per day will help you become a better writer — eventually.

In retrospect about the past decade of writing, I think that the best writing that I’ve ever done came when I was committing 2,000 words per day to paper.   Not all of it was beautiful, and only about two-thirds of it survives, but I was a far better writer because I practiced.  If you haven’t yet made writing every day a habit, do yourself a favor and try it. You’ll thank yourself later.

(And, because basketball related puns are mandatory… “Give it a shot!”)


Mr. Owen Ventures into Podcasting

July 9, 2017

Author’s Note: Apologies for the delay.  The July 4th holiday (America’s Independence Day) has fouled up my schedule, and I am trying to get back on track.  This coming week is going to be very busy for me, but I hope to post another author website feature on Wednesday.

Jim “James” Owen’s podcast appeared on Wednesday, July 5, 2017.  To hear it, click here.

Four months ago, I answered a post on Nanowrimo about being part of a podcast.  A few missed connections later, I was moving forward with my first foray into voice media since I was broadcasting basketball games at my college’s radio station.  I was on my way toward being a guest on The Modern Meltdown (For more about the Modern Meltdown, click here), an entertainment website that has scores of podcasts about everything from books and movies to video games.

It was not necessarily an easy process, as The Modern Meltdown is Australian, and Holly Hunt, the host of the Beyond the Words (click here) podcast, resides in Canberra. Canberra is seventeen hours ahead of the Bay Area, my stomping grounds.  Thus, 12:05AM Thursday here is 5:05PM Friday there, and 7AM here is 2AM the next day there, and so on.  Due to this significant time difference, and the fact that we both work more or less regular hours, either a Skype call or a phone interview would be out of the question.  I had to get creative, as I was looking forward to this opportunity, and I wasn’t about to let a time difference get in the way.  Thus, I had to make my own recording studio.

My Makeshift Recording Studio

Over the years, I have also done some recording for my company’s webinars.  Through this process, I’ve grown accustomed to using Audacity.  Audacity (click here) is a free, open source digital audio recording software package that has editing capabilities.  Designed and released in 2000, this package may not have great aesthetics, but basic capabilities are easy to find and intuitive to use.  All I needed was a microphone.

One of the problems that I’ve noted is that a lot of computer microphones don’t pick up bass nearly as much as they pick up higher registers, which makes my voice sound nasally.  When I was working on the webinars, the best microphone I’d used was a lavalier microphone that we’d simply used as a computer microphone.  Somewhere, I also have a wand microphone, but I haven’t bothered to look for that in years.  The microphone on my laptop picks up too much sound from my fan, and my phone?  Ha ha ha, that’s a good one!  I had a few other workarounds that I couldn’t get working, so I was left with a few interesting alternatives.  By using the microphone on my camera (very good quality sound), and capturing myself on video, I was able to pick up a broader register of sound.  I used another program (Lightworks) to separate the audio from the video by converting an .MP4 file to an MP3, and then used Audacity to clean up the audio.

This still left me with the issue of where to get the optimal sound.  While working on the webinars, our recording studio is an office with paned-glass doors and windows.  No matter where I sat in the room, the audio would pick up the sound of my voice bouncing off of the glass, giving everything a slight echo (or, if not, then the sensation that I was recording in a tunnel or a bathroom stall).  Luckily, my home office has two small windows and a great deal of solid wall.  Thus, while recording, the only things I needed to worry about were my voice, the content, and my cadence.

I was tasked with addressing the very beginning of a story.  How do I construct an opening?  Well, that’s a long story for me, but Holly Hunt (click here), a fellow author, was kind enough to provide me with a few questions so that we could play off of each other.

For my podcast debut with the host, Holly Hunt, please click here.

What I’ve Learned

Through this process, I noticed a few things:

  1. Mapping this out allowed me to be much more succinct with my answers, and (hopefully) more informative.

2. It’s hard to sound like an authority when the item over which I have authority, my book, is not even published yet.

3. I had a bit of trouble anticipating my audience, as my only experience with Aussies has been discussing basketball video games (as well as a few web comics I’ve followed over the years).  Was I over-explaining a little by describing The Scarlet Letter as if they’d never heard of it? I don’t know.

4. I think there was some broken communication about the intent of the questions, and a few questions were not as I remembered them (funny thing, memory).

5. Ultimately, Holly Hunt was great to work with, and I feel like she did a great job of putting together the final product.  It was an experience that I’d definitely take on again.

I listen to a few podcasts, and one thing that I notice in those podcasts is sound quality, but another is the amount of energy that the participants bring to the table.  If they bring too little, it makes me feel a little bored, but if they bring too much, it’s like listening to monster truck commercials for half an hour.  I think that both Holly and I brought the appropriate amount of energy, and I’m fairly certain that our Audacity-augmented process helped.  What do you think?  Did we do well?  Is there anything else you’d like to know surrounding getting started with a novel?  Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Did you miss that link for my turn on Holly Hunt’s Beyond the Words?  Click here.

About Holly Hunt:

Ms. Hunt, host of Beyond the Words on The Modern Meltdown, is a Canberra, Australia, -based author.  She has published a dozen graphic and written word novels spanning the fantasy and horror genres.  In July 2017, Ms. Hunt published The Devil’s Wife (Click here), a print novel in which Lucifer is alive and roaming the streets of New York City.

About James (call me Jim) Owen:

Mr. Owen, a native of Santa Cruz, California, is an author who is looking to take flight.  Absconded by Sin, his first novel, is currently in closed beta.  A graduate of St. Mary’s College of California (with another stop at UCSC), Mr. Owen has spent the past 6+ years in market research.  Prior to that, he taught high school English… and lived to tell the tale.

Pivot: Sounds

May 31, 2017

At the end of Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton always asks his subject questions from the Bernard Pivot questionnaire before turning his subject over to the audience.  One of the questions is “what sound or noise do you love?” If my cats were on the stage, and could talk, you wouldn’t be surprised if they said “can opener.”  Sound is an important aspect of any writing process, from the writer’s environment to the words that appear on the paper.

I’m a bit of an audiophile. There are definitely genres that I don’t enjoy as much, but I can listen to quite a few musical pieces or songs that are a bit far afield from my usual fare.  I’d spent much of the early part of this year working on this project – a series of mix CDs for my friend, Kevin, and it has everything from singer-songwriter fare to electronica and industrial genres.  There’s not any rap or country in there, but there I could have easily put in a little bit of everything from my phase where I listened to rap/R&B or from memories I have from college.  This project also made me realize how much variety there is even within a genre, and how I sometimes grab inspiration from music in my writing.

Music is also a great escape. When I’m at work, I put on my headphones and plug in. My coworkers say that I remind them of an air traffic controller when I do this, but it helps me focus – and helps drown out some of the chit-chat that happens around the office.  But is music good for writing?  I’d venture to say yes.  When I write, I listen to music quite a bit.  In fact, Train’s “Ordinary” is playing as I write this.  However, I think deep, well-wrought writing takes a specific kind of music.  For NaNo novels and extended periods of writing, I focus on choral pieces (nothing in English), movie scores, and video game soundtracks.  One that has been particularly helpful in my writing has been the Final Fantasy 7 soundtrack due to the four-plus hours of play it provides.  If I write for four solid hours, I’m usually on track for a particularly high word count.  Those help when you’re trying to get from point A to point B.

But sound in general is helpful.  When thinking about your writing, don’t think that the only soundtrack to your writing needs to be dialogue.  In just the past few minutes, I’ve heard the jingle-jangle of my cat’s collar, the low resonance of a car’s bass as it rolls down the street, the sound of someone closing their car door, and the whoosh of the air intake for my heating system.  It’s important to remember that sound goes a long way toward establishing setting.

There are many ways in which a writer can incorporate literary devices surrounding sound into their work, including alliteration and assonance, but one of the most common users amongst prose writers is onomatopoeia.  These are the words that are suggestive of the sounds that they represent.  A siren lets out a whoop, a rooster crows, a wave crashes, and all three phrases have words that imitate those actions.  These are the sound effects of your novel, in the same way that a Wilhelm scream lets a movie viewer know that the goon isn’t getting up anytime soon, or how the sound of a snake hissing lets the viewer know that the ancient jungle temple isn’t as abandoned as it seems.

For the record: what sound or noise do I love?  The sound of an analog clock (like a grandfather clock or a wall clock) as it ticks. It reminds me of my grandmother, an avid clock lover.

I’m going to provide a brief update on my work in a subsequent post, due mid-afternoon on June 1st.  For now, I wanted to leave you with a few musical selections that have helped me write:

Final Fantasy VII soundtrack

Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack

Carl Orff – Carmina Burana

Pandora Journey – Epic Music 1a

Pandora Journey – Epic Music 1b

Pandora Journey – Epic Music 2

Death: An Evocative Tropism in Written Works

May 26, 2017

I’d intended to write something about the power of music and my preferred listening when I write, but I think that will have to wait for another time.  Last night, just a few hours before I began this, I was sitting on the couch, reading an excerpt from Helene Simkin Jara’s Because I Had To, because I will likely see her this weekend.  Jara is the featured speaker at a writers group that I have attended over the past several months.  She is a free-form poet, a short-story writer, an actor, and a director, so she knows the importance of evoking emotions.  She sure did.  One of her poems, as it turns out, is about someone I once knew — or, at least, knew of — in high school.  She’d grown up with my wife, and (unfortunately) has since left corporeal existence behind her.

Death is a sensitive subject for all of us, whether we care to admit it or not.  If we have been lucky enough to have never encountered death amongst our friends and family, we are either very young, very fortunate, or very isolated.  Everything dies (except for, perhaps, some forms of hydrozoa).  Considering the universality of death, it is an important, and poignant, concept to address in fiction.  No, you don’t need to include Hamlet’s soliloquy — and please don’t, that’s been done — but killing off characters is not something to be taken lightly (unless you’re writing a comedy).

In fiction, not all deaths need to be meaningful.  Nobody cares about that lackey that gets offed in the middle of a firefight, but when meaningful characters begin dying willy-nilly, there better be a darned good reason why the character has to go.  After all, the reason why Piggy died in The Lord of the Flies is not because Golding ran out of things to do with that character.

I’ve had to kill characters in my novels, and my latest effort, Their Sharpest Thorns has a significant death count.  However, only a few deaths are meaningful, and addressing those deaths properly has been one of the challenges in trying to cap off this book.  I will venture to guess that the second and third drafts will spend a great deal of time focused on improving the death scenes, and establishing the emotional connections leading up to the meaningful scenes. I also have the challenge of differentiating the deaths that really matter from the deaths that are just a point of fact.

If I succeed in writing a death scene, then I evoke an emotional response from myself as I am writing it, just as I would in writing a scene that is funny or a scene that is heartbreaking.  I seldom do that when I write poetry — not that I have written much poetry.   When I read from Helene Simkin Jara’s excerpt, I realize that Ms. Jara must have written the poem with a heavy heart, because I have a heavy heart when I read those words.  As I scan the words, I don’t see very many big words, and there’s not that many words in the poem, at all.  However, those words that are on the page are arranged in such a way that, when read or scanned, properly represent a tragic death.

Learning Two Important Tips from Santa Cruz Writers

April 24, 2017

This past weekend, I shared a portion of my first completed manuscript, Absconded by Sin, for the first time ever.  I had previously shared a draft version of this in November of 2011, when I was still about a third of the novel away from having a completed first draft.  I wasn’t the only one to share, and far from it.  About ten authors shared their work, including one featured author, Michael Wallace.

We kicked off the event with one of our leaders within our small community sharing her prose.  Jennifer Pittman is a local journalist, and she moonlights as a memoirist and a nature writer.  I cannot find any copies of her creative non-fiction on her website, and her manner of writing journalism does not do her wordsmithing abilities any justice.  Jennifer has mastered that fine line between descriptive prose and poetry that engages the senses and evokes a sense of nostalgia within her audience.  An avid hiker, Jennifer uses her extensive time spent on the trail to weave a tapestry, and imbues that tapestry with the many vivid colors of meaning.

Click here to visit Jennifer Pittman’s website, and see her journalism.

Michael Wallace, the month’s featured author, shared excerpts from Wash Her Guilt Away, the second novel in his Quill Gordon Mystery Series.  Wallace, a veteran newsman in his own right, released the fourth novel, The Daughters of Alta Mira, in October.  Michael reminded us of an important task in any prose (and some poetry), the importance of handling your setting as if it is a character.  Unless your fiction is bordering on the absurd or psychotropic, this doesn’t mean that the setting itself has dialogue, but it does mean that the setting itself has some distinct characteristics that sets itself apart, rather than blending in to everywhere else.  Michael Wallace’s series takes place in the Eastern Sierras and in far Northern California, which has a distinct flavor, being far more remote than much of the state, and this is a characteristic that Michael seeks to evoke in his own writing.  In addition to the setting, one of the great characteristics that I noticed in his writing was his narrative authority in portraying a pair of characters who are in a fishing boat along a High Sierra river.  I’m not an angler, so some of the meaning of what they did was lost on me, but even Wallace’s main character, Quill Gordon, is a tribute to something that he loves.  (For reference, Quill Gordon is a famous American lure, made famous via its creator, Theodore Gordon.)

I did a little bit of research in preparation for Michael Wallace’s visit – all of which I promptly forgot, as there was originally another author on deck.  However, as he stood up, it came back to me.  Wallace has put together an effective website, including buttons to direct you to his YouTube, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn channels.  He includes an excerpt from one of his latest novels The McHenry Inheritance, and allows third parties to provide reviews (although they could stand to be curated a little). His YouTube, in particular, is the most effective in showing a book trailer.  This book trailer provides everything it should, introducing the book and the author, and sharing a little about what it’s all about.

Click here to visit Michael Wallace’s website, and learn about Quill Gordon

Click here to see Michael Wallace’s book trailer on YouTube

Through what these two shared, as well as the wit and wisdom of some of our other writers, I reflected on two things that make for good writing:

  • Word choice: being able to select the mot juste (right/appropriate words) to convey an idea, emotion, or action
  • Subtext: The story may have sprung from your fingertips, but you also need to understand the story behind the story from all angles, even if that latter story does not appear on the page.

As for me, I’d like to think that my presentation skills have improved slightly from one month to the next.  I did a better job of setting up my story, but still spoke like I was trying to emulate the guy who reads all of the disclaimers at the end of an ad for some new medicine.  Speaking after such a talented wordsmith like Jennifer, and such a practiced and poised speaker like Michael, was a bit intimidating, and reminds me that I still have a long way to go!  Finally, my latest live sessions on Facebook were not as successful as the first from the perspective of views, reactions, and clicks for my blog, but they were fun – and that’s an important part of being able to write well, too.

Unfinished Business (Part Three)

April 12, 2017

Note: This concludes a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  For the previous items in this series, see: Part One and Part Two.

Over the past few entries, I’ve mentioned some famous examples of novels that were left on the side of the road (or in the side drawer of a writing desk) due to frustration or illness, as well as a few examples that were left incomplete due to more dire circumstances.  As mentioned, Robert Burns made the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” a part of the public consciousness, if he didn’t coin the phrase himself.  In the third installment of this series, let’s take a look at some examples of my own work that are sitting there, incomplete.

Corporate Decree (2012) – “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure dome decree.”  These are the opening lines to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, a short poem that is arguably a long metaphor for the writing process.  The lines of this poem inspired me to draft out what became Corporate Decree, in which security guard for a massive live-work-play must investigate a suspicious death on his own, while his boss frets over the state of his company.  This has remained unfinished and untouched since September of 2013.  I still have most of this story, which clocks in at 56,000 words, but it is the last in a line of novels that I have started and hope to finish.

48 Minutes (2013) – Inspired from an idea given to me by my grandfather, this is the story of a man who mysteriously retires from professional sports, the circumstances that led to his retirement, and the path that he follows after his retirement.  I briefly workshopped aspects of this story with my friend, Adam, but it didn’t get much farther than NaNoWriMo 2013.  I abandoned this story in January 2014 with more than 76,000 words committed to the tale, but may return to it at some later date.

Untitled Disaster Story (2014) – This story is the tale of a group of mismatched parts who struggle to survive before, during, and after the first “man-made” natural disaster.  This was a long story, with many secondary and tertiary characters.  I abandoned this story in March of 2015 with 67,000 words spread out over several documents.  As of now, I am not certain that I will continue this one.

Untitled Robert E. Howard-style Novel (2015) – In 2015, I began an epic story that follows a group of adventurers through a foreign land, where an unlikely hero has to vanquish an evil queen.  I was having so much fun with this one that I was planning to break it into multiple books, and had to carefully consider how I addressed this.  Unfortunately, an unknown percentage of this one was lost due to the fact that one of my flash drives suffered irreparable damage.  I was able to locate a backup copy of this, which has about 56,000 words, but my full notes and most robust draft of this project were lost forever.  As far as incomplete manuscripts go, this is second among my priorities.

Their Sharpest Thorns (2016) – I workshopped this one recently at a writer’s group, shared some of this on Facebook Live, and committed to write 20,000 words for this during Camp NaNoWrimo.  It is still very much alive, so it might not be fair to say that this one has been abandoned.  However, this is the project that has sat in various stages of neglect as I try to beef up my blog and get my first novel, Absconded by Sin, published.  From November 2016 to March 2017, hardly any words had been committed to this work, and it has been just about two weeks since I picked this project up again.

Thanks for letting me share something about my own unfinished projects.  If you’re interested in any of these, or would like to see any other topics discussed in my blog, please comment below or reach me through your regular channels.

Photo Credit: Glory Cycles, Creative Commons 2.0 license via Flickr, 2012

Unfinished Business (Part Two)

April 10, 2017

Note: This is the second in a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  The third part of this series is scheduled to go out on Wednesday.

Last week, I mentioned my mentor’s fondness of the Robert Burns poem, To A Mouse (1785), which ends with “/ an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / for promis’d joy!” (essentially, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, and leave us with nothing but grief and pain for promised joy).  Despite what we may plan to do with our lives, some things never come to fruition.  Due to writer’s block, frustration, illness, or myriad other things, some authors are forced to leave a work behind.

Of course, not all writers are fortunate enough to step away from a novel or long story and choose to set it aside. Some writers suffer from what refers to as “author existence failure.”  The following are a few examples of writers who were not able to complete a famous work before they died:

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer – One of the early examples of great English literature (but by no means the earliest) is The Canterbury Tales, a story of pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. There are 24 completed tales, and centuries of debate that go alongside them. The general consensus is that Chaucer did not finish his tales before he died c.October 1400 at c.57 years old, because the pilgrims never make it to Canterbury, and Chaucer’s work ended in the middle of “The Cook’s Tale.”

The Canterbury Tales, for those who haven’t subjected themselves to them, are a trip because of the nature of the language in the text. It’s nominally English, but the thing that you need to realize about English at that time is that it was still coming together as a collection of languages based on British Anglic, Frisian (a German language that is still spoken in portions of the Netherlands), Norman (an earlier version of French), and a handful of other native British languages. As a result of this still simmering stew of languages, some of the words are the same in appearance as they are today, but sound completely differently than you’d expect; for instance, “pilgrimage” is actually pronounced “pill-gri-mah-juh.”  If you can cast aside the almost foreign English language, you’ll find tales with a variety of different content, from the pious to the profane.  A lot of the tales have to do with relationships and sex, at least one of them has to do with roosters, and all of them were intended to entertain people 600+ years ago.

The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser – Like Virgil before him and Walt Whitman after him, Spenser set out to create a national myth for his country. He intended to compose twelve books (more like long chapters or acts) of an epic poem that followed the virtues that mattered to contemporary Britain, personified by knights staving off giants, witches, dragons, and dark knights.  Spenser was so well liked, and so well known in his endeavor for a national myth, that he was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, and received a pension of £50 per year from the crown in order to complete it.  However, he died at age 47 in 1599, allegedly of starvation, having completed just five of his books. Any notes on the planned installments are lost, and it isn’t clear if Queen Elizabeth ever even read his work.

Don Juan – Lord Byron – Prior to the 1800s, novels weren’t really much of a thing for English-speaking audiences, and the epic poem was the closest thing to what we see today, which is why you see examples of verse, such as The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene on this list. Lord Byron came in that intervening period where epic poetry hadn’t entirely phased out, but the novel was still evolving as an art form. His Don Juan was a satire about a man who was easily seduced by women (not the womanizer that we hear about today). He published sixteen “cantos” (effectively chapters) before he died. The first two were anonymous, because he was worried that he would get in trouble for peddling “immoral content” (19th century smut). He was working on a seventeen canto, in which he effectively calls out his critics while continuing the story from the sixteenth canto, when he died from a sudden fever in 1824; he was 36.

The Love of the Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald was of notoriously poor health due to his almost surreal ability to drink copious amounts of alcohol, but his heart attack and subsequent death in 1940 still shocked the literary world.  Fitzgerald wrote about 163 pages into The Love of the Last Tycoon, his unfinished work that gathered insight from his years in Hollywood.  It follows a fictitious director’s rise to power, and the conflicts that he encounters along the way, including a rivalry with another director. His family published the incomplete draft in 1941.

Islands in the Stream – Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway was incredibly hard on himself as an author, and relentless at editing his own work. This is indicative of his overall mental state, as Hemingway is the only person who had the final say on when he died; he took his own life via shotgun in July 1961. Islands in the Stream and the subsequent The Garden of Eden were both published posthumously.  Despite taking almost two years to complete (nothing compared to the fifteen years spent on The Garden of Eden), Hemingway’s work on Islands in the Stream is rough.  His family did publish a complete draft of the novel, which follows a man as he goes from an artistic recluse to an action hero.  There are characteristics of the novel that are clearly Hemingway, but the rough nature of his word choice makes some critics wonder if the seemingly finished work was indeed finished, or if Hemingway intended to publish it as is.

Bonus: A Fourth Millennium Series book – Steig Larsson – This one is probably fresh in many of your minds, but Steig Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was working on a fourth book in that series when he died of a heart attack in 2004. Furthermore, Larsson had written out notes for two more, and allegedly had plans for as many as ten books in the series. His partner, Eva Gabrielsson, inherited his laptop, which contained his manuscript and all notes, and elected to sit on them while she considered her options.  In 2015, David Lagercrantz, another author contracted by Larsson’s publisher, published a fourth book in the series.  It does not rely on Larsson’s original notes.

There are plenty of other well-known authors who have famously passed on in the middle of a famous work.  Are there any big ones that I’ve missed?  Feel free to leave some examples in the comments section below.

Some Suggestions for More Robust Characters

April 3, 2017

Author’s Note: this started like an excerpt from a memoir, but eventually turned back to some fair reminders for characterization.

There are two aspects that are powerful when writing about characters, as everybody can relate to them on some level: nostalgia and jobs.  Everybody has their moments when they think back fondly on some period of their life, or when some aspect of their life reminds them of the way things were. Everybody has worked, does work, or will work at some sort of job, even if the job isn’t exactly the paying kind.  In order to create richer characters, and in order to draw readers into your characters’ world, bring relevant aspects of the characters’ pasts, as well as their roles in society into your narrative.

I’ve been pretty nostalgic lately.  Today, we went on a hike that reminded me of when I was first dating my wife.  We discussed her grandmother and her childhood friend, who are both since deceased.  Those memories spurred more memories, and so on.  I was fortunately enough to know her grandmother before she passed, and discussion of her grandmother hiking that trail reminded me of seeing this woman, then over 80, cutting the rug with her granddaughter at our wedding.  Aside from that, some alfalfa sprouts in my sandwich reminded me of sandwiches that my father used to order when I was a kid; I don’t know why he stopped having them, but you never see alfalfa on the menu anymore.  After that, tortellini with pesto reminded me of my childhood friend.  The point is, memories can flare and smolder like a campfire, depending on the kindling.

When discussing a character, and having that character advance through that plot, nostalgia doesn’t need to play a prominent factor.  However, consider all of the times you’ve been rolling down Broadway and you remember that swing-set that was there when you were a kid, or how that old theater reminds you of your first kiss.  Your characters aren’t going to reminisce of times passed when they’re busy hunting a serial killer, nor will they necessarily reminisce of times passed when they’re waiting for the bus, but there should be something there that hints at a time before your story began.

I’m in my early 30s.  My tenth college reunion is in the rear view mirror, and I’ll be closing in on forty by the time my next reunion (high school) takes place.  What this means, of course, is that I am part of our nation’s workforce. Regardless of what adults do in the workforce, from custodian to CEO, work takes up a great deal of their time.  How they go about their work, and what they feel about their work, is an important part of their character, as well.  My father repeats this one-liner from a movie (I think it might be the barbershop scene in Gran Torino) that goes something like “real men complain about their jobs.” It’s funny, but we all have stories from our jobs, whether mild frustrations or flat out grievances, peppering a character’s conversations and thoughts with complaints, worries, or even successes in their jobs makes for a more believable characterization overall.

For all of my fellow writers who are out there trying to paint a picture, use these thoughts and experiences to shape your character.  Is your character a former high school footballer who is stuck in the kitchen at the local diner?  Put in a little something about him grumbling about the big game.  Does your character know she is paid less than the manager’s underqualified nephew?  Add an interaction between the two of them!

Tug of War: Some Thoughts on Collaborative Writing

March 22, 2017

There are many writers out there who collaborate with others.  The past century or so is littered with examples of well-known writers who bring their own unique perspectives to the fold.  Under these circumstances, writers have commonly brought their own flair and aspects of their own writing to the collaboration, while the narrative takes on the unique aspects of both writers.  The thought of collaboration on a work of fiction has not been entirely foreign to me.  It isn’t an easy road to follow, and is probably best left to lifelong professionals.  One of the chief barriers that holds me back from collaborating with others is an understanding of the time commitment.  With talented, prolific writers, such as Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz, and Ed Gorman having collaborated on books, it is possible to do it, but much easier to coordinate when novel writing is your job.

Last week, I caught wind of a press release advertising Stephen King’s collaboration with publisher and editor Richard Chizmar on the novella Gwendy’s Button Box, a Castle Rock story that has at least some connection to King’s Dark Tower mythos.  It is King’s second announced collaboration due for release in 2017.  The first, Sleeping Beauties, is in collaboration with his son Owen, and is set to arrive in September.   With these collaborations in mind, I wanted to discuss some notable collaborations.

Ford and Conrad

One of the earliest examples that I have found of continued literary collaboration is that of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad.  The two writers combined to write three novels.  The first, The Inheritors (1901) is one of the early examples of the science fiction genre.  It is interesting to see their name associated with science fiction, as Ford was known for his modernist leanings, and his particular attention to current events, such as wars. He was a literary critic in an era where science fiction did not have much critical appeal.  Meanwhile, Joseph Conrad had more interest in the “other,” and the ideas of otherness, and the unusual circumstances his white male protagonists encountered when venturing to foreign lands. Things don’t get much more “other” for him than the Inheritors, wherein the main character explores a cabal of people who claim to be from another dimension.  Although I have not read this book, it is hard for me to imagine Ford and Conrad engaging in the realm of the fantastic or even of science fiction.

Niven and Pournelle

Larry Niven, the writer behind the Ringworld series, has a number of prominent collaborations under his belt. The Caltech grad is a prolific writer, with fourteen anthologies and six full-length novels in his Man-Kzu series, and numerous other anthologies.  Niven has co-authored multiple books with Steven Barnes and Jerry Pournelle.  My introduction to Niven came via his collaboration with Pournelle on 1977’s Lucifer’s Hammer, an apocalyptic fiction book that deals with the fallout from a comet impact.  From how individuals react to scarcity, how militaries react to opportunity, and how groups react to outsiders, Lucifer’s Hammer offers a more scientific and sociological viewpoint to how society reacts before, during, and after an apocalyptic event.  Other highly-lauded Niven-Pournelle collaborations include The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), and Footfall (1984).

Nolan and Johnson

I think we’ve all heard of Logan’s Run.  The 1976 Michael Anderson film has become one of the better known movies of its era, and won awards for its artistry and cinematography.  The concept of a society where humans have an extraordinarily short shelf-life (21 years), measured via markers embedded into the skin, is not only the thanks of movie magic, but is also the basis for a 1967 novel.  Written by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the original Logan’s Run was a 133 page dystopic novel set in the far off future of “the year 2000.”  Predominantly a novelist, Nolan dabbled in many other genres in his career, whereas Johnson wrote short stories and television scripts.  The two were well established by 1967, and their novel was earmarked for film almost from the beginning.  However, it took years in development hell before the promising novel became a film reality.

King & Straub

As mentioned above, Stephen King is not averse to collaboration.  Including collaborations with his sons, Owen King and Joe Hill, King has collaborated with Stewart O’Nan in 2005 for a non-fiction book about the Red Sox (Faithful) and Peter Straub for The Talisman (1984) and Black House (2001).  Straub is a respected figure in the horror community, and a multiple time winner of the prestigious Bram Stoker award.  Straub’s style, honed through years of reading gothic novels, has the deliberate pacing and word choice of literary fiction.  He has varied from more direct plot arcs to plots that rely on numerous twists and turns.  King, by comparison, makes characters that are generally familiar, peppering their actions with bits of pop culture, and has these characters go through terrible things.  The Talisman, my favorite literary collaboration, does just that as it follows 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s journey through “the Territories” to find that story’s titular talisman.  It also introduced me to the “overworld-savage world” concept that is the basis for The Dark Tower series.

It is rare that I have even discussed collaborating with other writers.  Part of it is a time consideration, as I know that my own schedule is demanding, and my own energy levels are finite.  Part of it is a control consideration, as ceding control over a story is a difficult thing to do.

Jim & Robert

I first attempted a novel-length collaboration with my friend, Robert, more than twenty years ago.  We’d always been creating stories, and the lands we created through our imaginations were limitless.  It started out when we were in the lower grades at our elementary school, where we created characters that were simply us inserting our own personalities into characters such as Spider-man and Batman.  It progressed from there.  Between the two of us, I’m sure that there’s some journal somewhere that has an embarrassing and exhaustive list of overpowered superhero characters.

We were probably ten or eleven when we decided to write a novel.  We would type out our story, handing it off to each other via a hard plastic “floppy disc.”   The story discussed what we later understood as “nanorobotics,” and focused on a reluctant cyborg; it never got off of the ground after perhaps twenty hard-wrought pages in Word.  I recall the frustration of seeing a new paragraph that went into further depth of the technology.  I did no better, and would send back another paragraph about the cyborg’s Pinocchio-like desire to be human.  After perhaps only a few months of this back and forth, our great novel had no plot, and neither of us had created any sense of movement, either in the sense of the story, or in the creative process.  I am sure that the pages of descriptive paragraphs, wherever they may be, never progressed past that point.

Best Practices: Collaborative Writing

Despite my reluctance to collaborate with other writers, I have discussed the possibility on several occasions.  What I’ve uncovered during these rare discussions makes for some interesting “best practices.”

First, it is important to understand and agree upon the concept.  If the ground rules for the story aren’t clearly articulated, the writing process can become contentious.  At best, collaborating on a story without rules can lead to a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas.

Secondly, it is important to identify the roles within the storytelling process.  Both authors may be charged with advancing the story, but it is best to play off of strengths.  Some authors write elegant description of settings and spaces, while others have an ear for dialogue.  While one author may be aware of their own tendencies, it typically takes an outside voice to clearly articulate and confirm your strengths.

Finally, mete out the direction and plot arcs for individual characters.  Inevitably, a writer develops emotional ties with one character or another, and builds a sense of the character’s thoughts and actions.  A potential conflict here is that another writer may have another sense of who that character is, and how that character perceives the World.  Be sure to identify a character’s starting point, and identify who will be responsible for charting that character’s development.

Anything I Missed?

There are numerous potential pitfalls to collaboration, and probably just as many best practices for avoiding them.  What pitfalls have stood in the way of your successful collaboration, and how did you overcome them?  What would you call the “best practices” for collaborative storytelling?  Let me know in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Viganhajdari, Creative Commons CCO License.