Archive for the ‘Writing Process’ Category

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 tvtropes.org 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. 

Finding Time to Write

March 20, 2017

It has taken some time, but I am now back on a roll with writing.  After four straight days of contributing something to my current novel, I’m not riding a marathon high just yet, but I think I can work my way back to that kind of “writing shape” with relatively little effort.  Nevertheless, I need to find time to write.

Finding the time to write is an imperative for any writer, and it comes in increasingly short supply for all of us, whether one of those industrious writers who by either luck or the ideal cocktail of imagination and vocabulary are able to do it for a living, or for the rest of us who are hoping that we get there someday.  It has been difficult for me over the past several years, as well, with a job that has become increasingly rigorous in its demands, and a range of other interests and distractions that have shaped my life.  Some of these diversions and distractions are great, such as riding my bike and participating in “century rides.”  Others are not so great… thank you, Facebook and YouTube!

In certain respects, things were so much easier when I was writing Absconded by Sin, the novel that I completed in 2011.  At that time, I was transitioning between jobs.  Yes, there is a bit of euphemism there, as I was unemployed.  However, I was moving from education, a field that had consumed my life for four years (and well before that, if you consider my time as a student), to any field that matched my skills and interests.  At that time, I would spend a good four hours every day focused on fiction writing, another couple of hours spent on job hunting, and the remnants spent on cooking, errands, exercise, and household duties.  I could go to the beach, do hill repeats by running up and down the sand dunes, and sit down and spend as much time as I needed mapping out my next scene or considering my characters’ motivations.

After some time without a full-time job, I again joined the regular 9-to-5.  As I settled into being a desk jockey, I was still rolling to an end with Absconded by Sin, and had about a quarter of the narrative to go before I was ready to put my stamp on the first draft.  This latter portion of Absconded by Sin took a long time to unwind, and I was caught between trying to balance all of my focal activities from my transition period with the new job, while also trying to get up to speed with this new landscape.  On some nights, I was lucky if I strung together 100 words, while others yielded far less modest word counts.  Still, I didn’t have those four hours that I’d used to put together 2,000 word segments; when I did, they lacked the same flow and richness that I’d enjoyed in November of 2010 (my first NaNoWriMo).  Over time, I adapted, but I was far less likely to put together monstrous word counts.  Even then, it took about ten weeks to put together the first 140,000 words, and about four months to put together the next 45,000.  Believe me, it took a long time to reduce all of that by a third, as well!

Life always intervenes with writing.  In some ways, I’ve improved at striking this balance.  However, not every aspect has improved for the better.  The house I keep is not nearly as tidy as it once was – and I was never an expert at it, to begin with — and laundry often doesn’t enter the landscape that I paint for a given week.  Even then, I try to write a little every night, whether it is something that I will use in a novel or something I will use in any of the various side projects and endeavors that I undertake.  Even emails and other correspondence are important to my creative process, as long as I am writing something.

In October 2016, I was ready to start my current project, tentatively titled “Their Sharpest Thorns,” and I had a general outline of the story, up until the third act, and some decent character notes that I hoped to flesh out as the novel started.  At that point, I learned the hard way that it’s best to back up your writing.  After hours spent on outlining and uncovering critical details that would make my novel whole, I damaged my thumb drive – which contained the only version of that document – beyond repair.  Thus, going into November’s NaNoWriMo, wherein I typically make my big push on my projects, I was flying by the seat of my pants.  Some writers thrive in those conditions.  I must admit, I enjoy the spontaneity of such an undertaking, but I need my thoughts to look good “on paper” (to use a somewhat apt sports analogy) before I can commit words to the page.

I was able to eclipse 63,000 words during NaNoWriMo 2016, but now rest at 65,200, just 1,700 words and change beyond where I stood at the beginning of December.  Not all of this is due to inactivity.  Just a few weeks ago, I completed a project for a friend.  This is a 21,000 word (plus another 1,100 words from my wife) effort that mixes memoir with travelogue.  Through this, I intend to surprise my friend and pay a debt of gratitude for his kindness  — if you think you know who this friend may be, please keep this detail to yourself; I am sure that he does not read this blog, and I’d like to maintain the surprise.

In addition to that large project, I have rekindled my blog and am starting to promote both this blog and my book through various avenues.  As you can see throughout my various posts, these undertakings can easily exceed 1,000 words.  With that 21,000 word project off of my plate, and with the blog now flowing again, it is time to see another work of fiction through to completion.  There will certainly be more to share about this journey as my word count continues to rise. Until then, I’ll leave you with the words of Herman Wouk, author of The Winds of War:

“I try to write a certain amount each day, five days a week. A rule sometimes broken is better than no rule.”

Author’s Note: Ironically enough, as I put aside the time to write this post about finding time to write, I broke that four day streak of fiction writing.

Image Source: endlesswatts on Pixabay, listed as public domain.

The Writing Process: Where

March 13, 2017

I’ve heard two conflicting schools of thought when it comes to a writing space.  Some argue that the writing space is sacred, and that you need to have an assigned space that is your writing space, where you know you’re there to write and do nothing else.  Others argue that you need to be ready to write anytime and anywhere, because it doesn’t matter; when the muse inspires you to write, you must be ready.  When I consider my own writing space, I break it down to three components: physical space, time, and mind space.

Before you set a pencil to paper or open up that word processor, you need to find your own writing space.  For some, it is easier than others.  In On Writing, Stephen King describes writing on a typewriter and a children’s desk before getting his own writing desk.  I’d imagine he’d be able to set up a piece of butcher paper on an ironing board and still manage to get his 2,000+ words per day on the page.  Max Barry, the writer behind Jennifer Government reportedly wrote in his car during his lunch breaks.  Somewhere, I once read that Hemingway would write while naked and standing in the middle of his kitchen; I’m not sure if that’s a joke, or if that’s the winning formula for a Pulitzer.  I write wherever I can find a comfortable space, but it usually amounts to the couch.  When I was first married, we had a broken old futon that served as our primary couch, and on more than one occasion as our guest bed.  We still have it, and it still serves as our guest bed.  If I had to guess how much of Absconded by Sin was written while on that futon, I’d place the number at about 90%, and think that I was guessing too low.  Nevertheless, this was my writing space through my first several completed works.

I’ve heard that a number of writers write in the morning. Barbara Kingsolver and Kurt Vonnegut are two such writers that I can verify through their own words, and I’ve seen Stephen King mention the same.  When I started out, I was a morning writer, too.  I would wake up with my wife, who had an early commute, make her lunch every morning, and then start writing as soon as she left.  If I was lucky, I’d be out doing errands by 10am.  If I wasn’t, then I’d still be on the futon at noon, wondering if I’d get out to the grocery store that day or be able to get in a short run before I started my run of job applications for the day.  Whichever way you looked at it, both my plans for the day and my physical location depended on just how much I’d written that morning.  Now, of course, I have other obligations, and I do most of my writing at night.  I’ll talk more about that in a later post.  Today, the only time I spend working on fiction in the morning is after the clock strikes midnight, if I have the energy.

Aside from the physical space, there’s also the mental space.  There was a time that I’d be in constant thought, entirely focused on my fiction writing.  It didn’t matter if I started at 7am or 11am, I was going to be working on that novel.  I would go out on a short run or a bike ride, or go to the store, and I was always thinking about Angela and Henry, the two protagonists of my story.  In fact, sometimes the mere act of rolling a cart through a store was the perfect subterfuge that allowed me to focus on ending a scene or identifying a character’s motivations.  Of course, things have changed since I started writing Absconded by Sin, and getting started is sometimes a more arduous task.  I do some of my best writing on Sundays, or after I’ve had time to decompress in the evenings.  It’s rare that I’m able to get home from work, hit the keyboard, and feel like my writing is truly at its best.  When I’m writing, and truly moving the cursor, I’m not thinking about work, and I’m not checking to see what my friends think about the new MCU movie trailer, I’m writing, and that’s all that’s going on between my two ears.

I am a writer of habit, and I have never been able to write for any sustained period while in a coffee shop.  Once, I spent the day writing from a park bench.  It was a very productive day, and that park bench was much better than a coffee shop.  However, from the perspective of physical comfort and mental space, neither was nearly as familiar as my time spent on that old futon.

Baba O’Reilly, Splendor in the Grass, 16 Candles, or Something…

June 26, 2013

Every year, among the last two Thursdays in June, I turn over the tube to good ol’ ESPN (wish it was better ol’ TNT) to spend the next three to four hours watching the NBA Draft.  It’s a holiday for me, of sorts; call it a day of remembrance for the naivete of youth and the trauma of early teenage years.  Since 2003, I’ve seen individuals enter the NBA who were younger than me (by the way, the first NBA player drafted who was younger than me? LeBron James, followed by the next three picks in that draft).  This marks the eleventh draft since players started being younger than me; by now, these players were born when I was in the fifth grade.

Every year, and I do mean every year, I hear the talking heads talk about players who are mature beyond their years or have maturity issues.  Perhaps because it’s bad marketing, the questions about maturity have become more subtle every year.  In 2003, they were statements; in 2005, they were questions; in 2010, they were subtle intimations; in 2013, they will be whispers that only get aired if they suddenly cut back from commercials. Every year, some players have unfortunate, well-publicized breakdowns; usually, these players are the same players that had the subtle intimation of maturity issues, but that’s not always the case.  This year, there will be a player – and I’m not sure who – who will inevitably become a headache for his teammates, coaches, general managers, ownerships, and probably even the people at the ticket booth.  They’ll chalk it up to the questionable maturity that was always there (but they only whispered about in between commercials).

These guys are 19.  Jenn, Steve, you could probably come up with a laundry list of immature things that I did when I was 19  — and I wasn’t even supposed to be one of those guys.  Sure, I didn’t stab anyone, deface anything, mysteriously cause a sliding glass door to shatter, or tell the greatest professor on campus that I was too hung-over to focus (and I wasn’t, thank you very much).  However, I was 19, and I did somewhat typical 19 year old things: midnight runs to whatever was open, making fun of my roommate and his booty calls, feeding the trolls, etc.  Now, you give a nineteen year old several million dollars and a bunch of unscrupulous businessmen who are trying to take their cut; not only are you creating a millionaire without the life experience to know how to handle wealth, you’re also creating a disdain for authority figures (they’re only in it for the money, anyhow.) 

After that, maturity doesn’t seem all that important when the bankroll is guaranteed.  However, don’t hate them because they net more in a week than you do in a year; at 19, these guys (kids really) become more than just working professionals, but also expensive commodities.  Yes, they may make $10 million dollars by the time their college graduating class walks (admittedly, not all of that is from their base salary), but they’re also raking in more than that for their ownership, particularly if the player is a huge draw from day one (such as LeBron).   Between guaranteed money coming their way and the pressure that comes with being in the limelight, these guys are more likely to blow their money on diamonds than they are to shine like diamonds.  Darko Milicic, who just turned 28 on the 20th, left the NBA after a ten year career; according to basketball-reference.com, Milicic purportedly made at least $52 million, despite being widely classified as a bust (or “draft mistake).  In that time, Milicic burned a lot of bridges, and many questioned his work ethic and ridiculed his inability to make good on what at first seemed like a heaping helping of potential greatness.  However, if you believe basketball-reference.com, he made at least $3.6 million by the time he turned 19.  What would you do if you were a millionaire at 19?

                What does this have to do with writing?  Well, a lot and a little.  We all have shortcomings that we acknowledge, and those that we don’t.  For me, the issue always has been writing children, but particularly teens.  Sure, there’s a lot of writers that aren’t particularly good at doing this; Nathaniel Hawthorne is among the most literary of examples. I’d like to think that it’s because I (or we, as writers) had a different way of looking at things when we were ten than the other 89.4% (or whatever) of the world.  By sayin g that, I start thinking of the NBA general manager who thought “oh, he was such a pain in the butt that Denny Krum couldn’t reel him in; oh, well, we’re special – we’ve got this!”  I do think I was different; I was driven, obsessed in some things, but not in others.  How many fifteen year olds are there out there that take pride in the fact that they walk funny (because their feet are sore from the previous day’s workout)?  How many sixteen year olds are given a four page creative writing project, and stay up late into the night to churn out a fifteen page short story?  Probably about the same amount of teenagers that stay up late into the night, throwing a tattered leather ball through a hoop, hoping that they will someday make the NBA.

                Even when I was nineteen, I had trouble creating an average nineteen year old in my stories.  Instead, my nineteen year olds became a pastiche of James Dean, Corey Feldman, and John Carter of Mars.  Okay, perhaps not that odd, but these were nineteen year olds who were already driving cherry collector cars and were already well versed in hand to hand combat, metallurgy, and whatever it took to catch killer aliens, burglars, and other miscreants.  I seem to recall one character who could step onto a track, three years removed from any training, and churn out sub-five minute miles, all the while so stoned that he could barely drive from the Capitola Mall to the Soquel High track.  By the way, being a druggie was this guy’s big flaw.  Yes, because even 19-year-old, ne’er-do-well druggies try to go out there and totally kill it at an All-Comer’s Meet.  Aside from it all, the guy was a rabid skirt-chaser.  Hmm, I wonder why I never really pushed forward with that story.

                I’m getting close to 30.  Not quite there yet, but it’s coming up. Fortunately, not all of my characters are 19-year-old druggies with wings on their shoes.  However, it becomes harder and harder to write about individuals in their teens.  When I do, it comes from a space in time when I was a teenager.  Cell phones? MySpace? Facebook?  Well, those hadn’t quite hit yet.  Texting?  I had no idea what that was until I was already in my early twenties.  When I was your age…  Oh wait, I’m likely not ranting at teens.  Seriously, though, I managed to avoid American Idol, sbarro, The Gap, American Eagle, and the red “no, I swear, it’s root beer” cups throughout my teen years, and I (thankfully) have no idea how I’d update that list today.

                When writing this, I can’t help but think of the fictional writer Melvin Udall, when asked how he wrote women so well, and his answer “I take a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”  Replace women with teens, and I wonder if that works.  I know it doesn’t, but I also think that the kind of teens that populate books are quite a bit different than the kind of teens that populate real life.  They’re always an exaggeration. 

When they’re angsty, they’re especially angsty:

“Do I want a chocolate cookie?  Go f### yourself, of course I want a goddamned chocolate cookie, but I’m not going to take one because I’m so f###ing pissed off!”

When they’re opinionated, they’re especially opinionated:
“Like, there should be some sort of law where old women have to wear their hair short or something.”

And when they’re intelligent, well, they’re off the charts:
“There’s ten places where the Linux kernel could improve itself, and let me illustrate why, in Latin.”

Two comics that I never hesitate to read are Zits and Luann.  They draw me in.  Ironically enough, I think that they get teenagers better than I ever could.  Then again, Jeremy Duncan, the protagonist of Zits, does things and gets away with things that would’ve put me on restriction for months.  He gets rewarded in ways that I’d never imagined for miniscule stuff.  Luann Degroot, the protagonist of Luann, is kind of the opposite.  Not only does it not seem like she’s doing anything, nobody seems to mind that she’s not doing anything.  Her friends are all interesting, but she just seems to complain about how boring her life is.  In recent arcs, I’ve wondered if they’re going to stop calling it Luann and instead start calling it Life with the Degroots.  Again, not that I’m complaining about either strip; I’ll continue reading them until I burn them so that my future children don’t get any distorted ideas of reality.

That still doesn’t solve my problem, in my inability to understand teenagers to the point that I can actually write about them convincingly.  It also doesn’t solve the NBA’s problem, to the point that one of those young men will end up completely imploding and be out of the league and out of their fortune by the time they’re my age.  At the same time, guess who’s watching a tape of the NBA Draft on Saturday night.

How would you write about teens?