The Last Day of Summer

summervacationToday is the last day of summer at my house. A purist would say summer doesn’t end until September 21st. Some of my fellow Texans would say summer doesn’t end until the high for the day is below 90 degrees Fahrenheit for five days in a row – in other words, November. And I have a few friends in the southern hemisphere who tell me summer won’t even start until December. But around here, today is the last weekday of summer vacation, and right now, that trumps every other measure.

It was the same when I was a kid. That last Friday before schools started was the last day of summer. Technically, yeah, I know it wasn’t even the last day of summer vacation – that being Sunday or the occasional Labor Day Monday when we started late – but either way, the last Friday was the last day that counted. The weekends were days that we would not have been in school anyway. (Strangely though, summer vacation began four nanoseconds into the first oscillation of that final bell at school, regardless of which day of the week it was.)

All of that is to say that my kids go back to school on Monday. This has been a hard summer at my house, particularly this last month. My boys on the autistic spectrum have been having a hard time. The eldest had his routines disrupted in late July by some extended family visits, and that has had repercussions on everything from whether he’ll sleep in his room to his toilet use. Meanwhile, my youngest has been having some serious freak-out that we now suspect is an adverse reaction to a medication change that started in May. And in the middle our daughter has been, well, caught in the middle of it, having a rough time with the turbulence.

Yeah, I know, folks complain about kids as a reason to get in the way of everything from cleaning house to writing the great American novel, but anyone who has spent much time at my house knows that my kids are a greater challenge than most. I love them and everything, but they can pretty much consume my universe when things get bad. That was my summer from about July 20 onwards.

Anyway, my writing took a hit. The blog has been largely silent, and I’m behind on edits and new drafts. I’m not promising to be back at full productivity by Monday morning, but things should turn around shortly. Sorry for silence here on the blog, and my apologies to those waiting for the next installment in the Father Chessman saga.

So, see you on Monday. In the meantime, I’m off to make sure the kids aren’t setting anything (or anyone) on fire.

Still on haitus for a bit…

Summer at home with the kids is proving more challenging as the weeks go by, and I’ve been making the novels my priority over blogging as the insanity ramps up.  On the other hand, my 9-year-old daughter is no longer merely asking “What are your writing?”  Instead, she’s asking how the book is coming, and she’s remembering the titles that I’m working on.

Summer Writing Schedule

writing_iconI thought I’d take a few minutes to update you about what I’m working on this summer.

Hell Bent is officially in beta. I handed it off to the bulk of the beta readers in the last few days, and I’m working out a handoff for the last one today. Hopefully I’ll get all that feedback by mid/late July and then do my edits in August. If I can get it to the copy editor in the September time frame, I might manage to publish it in November.

Debts of My Fathers (the sequel to Ships of My Fathers) is still in pre-edit limbo. I have the printout ready and waiting, but I haven’t looked at it since I wrapped it up last November. I will very likely do my initial edits to it this summer with an eye towards getting it to beta readers in the early fall. Publication is targeted for around New Years, but at this point, it’s hard to nail it down.

But for now, I’m starting to draft new work. In fact, I’m planning to draft two new novels this summer, if time and brain allows. My goal is to draft two new novels this year, with some hope of stretching that to three, and here I am with the year almost half-gone and not a single one written. Time to dig in.

shattered_vaseThe first one, tentatively titled Shattered, is quite the departure for me and might actually be a throw-away novel. Why? It’s a mystery, something I’ve never written before. Then why am I writing it, especially now when I should be trying to establish a rhythm in my publishing career? A couple of reasons. First, my mother is not a sci-fi or urban fantasy fan, and she keeps asking when I’m going to write something she can read. Well, I’m going to indulge her and try to write a mystery.

But the other reason is that a number of SF writers recommend that every writer should write a mystery at some point in their career, the earlier the better. Apparently, there’s something to be learned from the way a good mystery lays everything out and yet keeps the reading from seeing the resolution until the characters wrap it up all together. I’m also going to try a few experiments with additional prep work. I won’t say I’m going as far as the dreaded outline, but I’m at least laying down a few details before I type “Chapter 1”.

The second book I hope to draft this summer is the sequel to Hell Bent, tentatively titled Stone Killer. My general goal in writing series is to draft the sequel before publishing the first, or to generalize it, draft N+1 before publishing N. I figure that improves my odds of fixing continuity problems before they go to print since it allows me to spot a problem in N+1 and fix it in N before it’s too late. So, since I hope to hand off Hell Bent to the copy editor around September, that means I’ll want to draft Stone Killer before that.

But if you do the math, you’ll see that’s drafting two full novels in the next two and a half months. Even considering that one of them is a mystery (typically a little shorter, targeting 65-75,000), the total for both novels will be in the range of 140-160,000 words. That’s about three NaNoWriMo’s worth in less than three months, while also trying to wrap up edits to Hell Bent and making my initial edits to Debts of My Fathers.

I honestly don’t know if I can do it, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

I Can’t Do That

I’ve been stuck on Debts of My Fathers for a couple of months now. It’s not the traditional “writer’s block” where I’m blocked on the writing itself. I’ve written plenty of other stuff. It’s also not that I’m unclear on what comes next. Certainly, I’ve jiggered the order of a few of the as-yet-unwritten events, but I’ve always known what was going to happen. So, to be clear, I know exactly what has to happen next.

I just don’t want to do it.

Very soon, I have to do something horrific to a character I like. I have to do my dead-level best to break her down to the core, and to do that, I must do something truly abhorrent – something I would never do, something I am realizing I cannot do.

But of course, it’s not me that’s doing it. And for that matter, the character I’m inflicting it on isn’t really suffering for it either. It’s all make-believe with one fictional character being mean to another equally fictional character. I’m just jotting this little lie down on paper.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help much. In some ways, to make the reader care about these characters, the writer has to care just as much. So it sucks when something bad happens to one of them. It sucks even more because, at some level, I’m the one doing it. Remember that thing about fictional characters taking up slots in our monkey-sphere? Yeah… well right now Skippy the Wonder-Monkey is looking at me with accusing eyes. “You’re doing what? To my sister Charlene the Cheery-Chimp?”

So now I’ve got to go do that terrible thing to someone I like, and I don’t want to do it. The scars on that character will be permanent, and if she was real, she would never actually forgive me, not even after removing my internal organs with a rusty spork. But she’s not real, so I’m going to fire up the torture machine and drop her in. I might even have to decapitate her teddy bear first.

But if I ever find out I’m in some kind of Stranger Than Fiction world, I’m really going to lose it.

Writers Are Cruel, so Have Pity

If your reading has progressed past Dr. Suess, you’ve almost certainly had one of those “You Bastard!” moments. That’s when the author hits you with something both surprising and cruel. That sidekick you loved? Oops, he’s dead. That knight in shining armor? It turns out he’s the bad guy. And that character you identify with so closely? Yeah… she’s going into the meat grinder.

While it would be fun to toss it off with the glib observation that we’re a vicious breed, the truth is better. Writers are cruel for a good reason.

By putting characters through the crucible of their misfortune, the reader gets put through it as well. We get the full emotional ride, but we come out the other side with no scars. Well, maybe a few scars. I’m still kind of shaken by some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter, but I guess that’s part of it too. Voldemort didn’t kill any of my friends and family, and yet I got to taste that sense of terrible loss, and while I prefer a joyful life, I know it is one tempered by grief. Maybe it’s better to have some idea what I’m up against in fiction before I’m facing it for real.

But it’s not enough for a writer to drop in pain and loss by recipe. To work, it’s got to be real. At least, that’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from others as well. “Writing is easy,” they say, “just pull out the paper and open a vein.”

I think that’s why some of the best advice for young writers is to go out and live some life first. Every heartache, every mistake, every open wound… it’s all grist for the mill. I have suffered. I have seen suffering. And, I confess, I have sometimes caused suffering.

Writing about it makes for poor therapy, since you kind of have to wallow in it at times. Rather, it’s best to have already dealt with it before doing the writing. That way you can keep it close enough to make it real but far enough away to keep it from consuming you. Of course, my life has been far from Schindler’s List or The Mission, but it has had its cathartic moments. Seven years after my father’s death, I’m finally tapping into that well. I don’t know how long it will be before I can write about my sons. Maybe never.

So I think about that when some author pulls the rug out from under me with the demon ripping apart that innocent five-year-old child. I want to hate him for being so cruel, but I also realize that at some level this was real to him. No, it wasn’t actually a demon, and chances are the kid wasn’t actually eaten alive, screaming as he went, but somewhere in that author’s life, whether it was him or someone he knows, there was very likely some tragic death of a child. If he hadn’t had any real emotion to tap into, it wouldn’t have had the power to affect me so much.

So, as much as I call him a bastard, I kind of have to feel sorry for him, because whatever real events inspired that grief on the page, I imagine that living it hurt a hell of a lot more than simply reading it. So, who is more cruel, the author, or the fate that put so much grist in the mill?

And people wonder why so many great writers suffer from depression and alcoholism.

Best Writing Advice

Last week I wrote about the worst writing advice I ever got, so today I’m going to write about the best writing advice I ever got.

There’s a vast sea of writing blogs out there filled with advice. Most of it is decent. Some of it bad advice, or at the very least, it’s bad advice for you in particular. Similarly, some of that advice is simply inapplicable, e.g. dialog tags rarely matter in how-to books. But every now and then there’s a real gem, or at least, one that really speaks to me.

And the best writing advice I ever got was in quite the opposite direction from last week’s worst advice:

Finish the damn thing.

It’s not “show don’t tell”, “avoid adverbs”, or even “eschew obscure verbiage”. It has nothing to do with the finer points of craft. It’s all about keeping your butt in the chair until you finish what you started.

Maybe that means keeping at it until you finish the draft. Maybe it’s all about doing the necessary edits to turn that draft into a readable manuscript. Maybe it’s about shepherding that manuscript through either the indie or traditional publishing tracks. It fits them all. If you’re working on something, keep at it until you’ve finished it.

Do not merely sit around for years, blathering on and on about that book you’re writing. Don’t let the printout gather dust on your desk. Don’t let it sit for months while you quibble over where to send it. It may have started easily enough with “Chapter 1”, but neither it nor you are done until it’s out the damn door.

Now, I will say that will all good advice, there are a few exceptions. If the book just isn’t working, then maybe it’s irreparably flawed. In that case, set it aside, come back to the idea (not necessarily the manuscript) in a few years and see if it’s worth another look.

My first NaNoWriMo was like that. It reached 75,000 words and was just getting into the middle third of the story, so it was likely to end up at close to 200,000. (That’s 670 pages in paperback terms.) And besides being too long, it was not particularly commercial in that it was a deeply philosophical science fiction tale exploring the nature of sentience, a post-scarcity world of aimless dilettantes, and lots and lots of lesbian robot sex. As weird as that sounds, I might go back to it someday and see what there is to salvage. Who knows, I might just turn out to be the great 21st Century thesis on lesbian robots.

However, if story after story keep stalling out, it’s probably not the story itself, so just grab the one you’re working on and finish it. Maybe it will be trash, but with a finished story, you can at least take a look at the whole and see why it isn’t working and whether or not you can fix it.

My second attempt at a novel did not have those problems, and it is now out in reader’s hands.  The third, fourth, and (so far) fifth novels worked out pretty well too.  They’re not out yet, but I am working on finishing them.  The third is with beta readers, the fourth is in a cooling period awaiting my edits, and the fifth is is taking form in its first draft.  After years of piddling around with ideas and partial drafts, it feels good to pound them into the ground and say they are done.  Or at least, it feels good so far.

I’ll throw in a couple of quick mentions of the second and third best writing advice I ever got. The second one being to write, write again, and keep writing. Writers write, the saying goes. They don’t merely talk about how they’re going to write.

The third best writing advice I ever got came from a tiny little book called Writing to the Point, by Algis Budrys. The book is now out of print, and used copies are rare and list for about $1000 on EBay. He died a few years ago, so I don’t know what, if anything, his estate is doing about republishing it in paper or ebook form. But he gave an excellent and simple formula for writing fiction that established a rhythm for a story, where the protagonist tries, fails, and keeps trying. I’ll dig it up sometime and do my best to sum it up, but it was fabulous.

So there it is. Anyone else have some good writing advice?

Worst Writing Advice

I see lots of writing advice. Sometimes it’s some writer’s best practice. Other times it’s a time-honored truth. And sometimes it sucks with the power of an army of shop vacs. I’ve seen writers asked for the best and worst writing advice they’ve heard, so I thought I’d do that in a pair of entries this week and next. In order to end on a more positive note, I’m starting with the worst.

The worst writing advice I ever got went something like this…

So, you want to write? Don’t. That’s right: don’t write. Just walk away from the keyboard, leave the room, and never come back.

Another version I’ve heard says that if you feel the urge to write, you should go lie down until it passes.

I’ve run into several other versions, but they all say the same thing. If you think you want to write, don’t do it. Just give up. Don’t even try to write. Quit now. This is not for you.

If you dig deeper into this kind of advice, you’ll find that what they’re really trying to say is that it’s hard work, and for the vast majority of people who try it, it pays only in tears and crushed dreams. The last time I checked, the mortgage company does not accept payment in dreams, crushed or otherwise. So, you should give it up. Maybe that’s harsh, but for at least 99% of you, it’s excellent advice.

Excuse me, but I say BULLSHIT.

Yes, writing is hard work. Yes, it usually pays poorly. And yes, most of you won’t be particularly good at it.

But telling you to not even try is like telling a kid to put down the ball because he’s not likely to make it onto a professional baseball team. Or perhaps you’d rather tell a 5-year-old to put away the finger paints because she’s unlikely to be the next Picasso? Or to tell your son to stop looking at the stars because there are so very few astronaut slots?

To hear those words coming from a professional writer smacks of elite hypocrisy. “Here, take this advice that I did not heed and am glad I never did, but for you it’s spot-on. Yes, I used to suck just as bad as you, but I’m brilliant now, and you’re not. So go away, kid. You bother me.”

They justify this by saying that for every potentially great writer they discourage, they save ninety-nine others the heartbreak of crushed dreams. I say to hell with that, because I think those other ninety-nine will have a lot of fun trying, just like all those young athletes who never turn pro.

So feel free to ignore that advice. If you want to write, I say you should go for it.

For what it’s worth, the distant second in the race for worst writing advice ever was that if you’re going to be serious about it, you need to go back to school, get a degree in English, and learn both Latin and German, preferably with Latin being your second major. The idea was that you could then understand the English language well enough to know when to use the Latin-derived word instead of the Germanic-derived word.

So, here I am writing science fiction and fantasy… is “phaser” from the Latin? What about “zombie”?

How about you? What’s the worst writing advice you were ever given? (Or skip writing and go with any bad advice.)

Page 100

Sorry, no essay today, but I crossed through page 100 on my new draft.  I draft on 8.5×11″ pages — or rather, their electronic equivalent — so that’s about 56,000 words.  In a trade paperback, that would be closing in on page 200.

I’m more or less on track to finish up by the end of July.  I’m setting a pace for 90,000 words, though my drafts tend to come in closer to 80,000 with another 5-10K creeping in during the edit phase.  This is for two reasons: first, my drafts are often light on needed description, and second, my initial drafts sometimes include notes like “hey, this gun needs to show up back in act 1.”  So, while there is some tightening of the prose during the edits, I also add a fair amount, sometimes in snippets and sometimes entire scenes.

It’s also been interesting in that I’m writing a sequel to a book that won’t come out until this fall, and I still have time to go back and change things in that first book.  So, as I’m winding this one down and firming up the ideas for the next three (it’s a 5-book series… I think), I’m seeing a couple of items that I need to go back and drop into the first book.  Things that, y’know… might be IMPORTANT later.

So, back to the word mines.  I’ve got another six or seven pages before the next bad thing happens to our heroes.

Why I Don’t Talk About WIP

That’s W-I-P, Work In Progress, not WHIP (Wicked Handled Instrument of Punishment?), and I don’t talk about work in progress. I used to, a long time back, but not anymore. Why? Well, that’s something I will talk about.

First of all, I must say that the temptation to talk about a work in progress is strong. Writing is fun. It’s the grown-up equivalent of playing make-believe. You know what’s even more fun? Talking about fun stuff with other people, and I used to indulge myself in it quite a bit. However, after a while, talking about it stopped being fun and started to become frustrating – so frustrating, in fact, that not only did I stop talking about writing, but I stopped writing.

I started up again, eventually, but I rarely spoke of it. Very specifically, I never talked about the thing I was writing, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that I really nailed down my reasons for it. So here they are:

Reason #1: It’s my story, not yours.

This was one of the most annoying things that would happen when I talked about a story I was writing. I would be describing the basic setup or plot, and the person I was talking to would jump in with some suggestion. “Wouldn’t it be cool if that character had some kind of superpower?” Or maybe, “That would work really well if it turns out to be a big government conspiracy.” And of course, “We should later find out that the bad guy is really his father!”

I appreciate the energy. Really, I do. I hear ideas, and I go spinning off in my own direction. I see little situations and start twisting them into epic struggles and ancient prophecies. I know what’s going on in your head when you come back with that twist on the story I’m talking about. I get it, ok?

But no, it would not be cool if that character had a superpower, or was part of a government conspiracy, or turned out to be the hero’s father. It’s not that those are bad ideas. I’m sure they could be turned into great stories, but they’re not MY story. In MY story, that character is our heroes trusted sidekick, and the government is generally clueless and unable to help, and our hero’s father died tragically in his son’s arms in chapter 1.

THAT is the story I’m trying to tell. THAT is the story I have passion for. If you have the same passion for your father and son team of superhero conspiracy fighters, I say go for it. Put your butt in the chair and crank that puppy out. It’s fun. Really.

Unfortunately, most people didn’t actually want to do that. They wanted me to do that, and when I wouldn’t produce “Jorel and Superman vs. the Trilateral Commission”, they got kind of pissy with me. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was NOT fun.

Reason #2: No, it’s not just like that other thing you read.

This was not as frustrating as that first one, but it was much more disheartening. I would describe an idea, and people would say, “Yeah, that’s just like this book I read last spring.” Sometimes it would be something I’d never heard of, and sometimes it would be something I was already familiar with.

If I’d never heard of it, I would often get sidetracked for a while as I chased down that other story and read it, only to discover that no, it was not the same as my idea. Yes, both stories had dirigibles, but yours is a steampunk romance, while mine refights the battle of Troy by time-travelling aeronauts in a NASA project gone awry.

And if it was something I had heard of, then the conversation immediately segued into an argument about how it was different. “Sure, it’s Troy instead of Paris, but there was a guy named Paris in Troy, and we all know about the romance between Paris and Helen. And of course, the dirigible is the key!”

But they’re not the same. I’ve heard arguments that there are only N plots or conflicts, ranging from one to twenty-seven. (FWIW, the “one story” is kind of two: local boy goes off to have adventure, or a stranger comes to town. It’s just a choice of which side of the story you’re on.) And, so these arguments go, the only thing authors can do is bring their particular voice to the tale.Maybe, but that particular voice makes all the difference in the world.

Compare the two takes on Battlestar Galactica, one from the 1970’s and one from the 2000’s. Look at all they had in common: the same genesis of holocaust, the same goal to find Earth, most of the same characters, ships, and so on. But in execution they were so incredibly different. I look at that as proof that you could give two authors the same idea – hell, maybe even the same outline – and get two radically different stories.

And yet, every comparison came as a nasty jab in my side telling me, “You have no original ideas. You should just give up.” And so, eventually, I did.

Reason #3: I can only tell the story once.

That’s an exaggeration, but there’s an element of truth. For me, once a story takes root in my mind, it burns with an all-consuming passion until I can get it out. It’s always there, demanding to be let loose. People sometimes talk about gifts from their muse, but for me, my muse is a torturous bitch keeping me awake at night and haunting my days.

Now, I can tell someone about the idea, and that lets the idea out some. It gives me a bit of relief. If I do it often enough, the fire is quenched, and the burning passion to write the story goes away. But then I don’t have a story.

This was crystallized for me when watching the movie Grand Canyon. Steve Martin’s character has had a life-changing revelation, but he doesn’t want to tell his friend about it. When pressured to tell him, he replies, “No, I don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes I think people talk about doing things as a substitute for actually doing them.

Yep, he nailed it. Instead of writing the stories, I was talking about them, and every time I opened my mouth about a story, I was spending my passion for it until eventually there was no passion left. This, more than any other reason, was why I stopped talking about work in progress. Now, instead of talking about stories, I write them.

So, what do I say when someone asks what the story is about?

In most situations, it’s not feasible to quote this essay at them. Sometimes I’ll throw the Grand Canyon quote at them and go on from there, but usually it’s just a mild inquiry. They’re not prepared for me open the fire hose of creative theory on them.

So instead, I’ve developed a series of uninformative and somewhat off-putting code phrases. The first novel I used this technique with was “about lesbian robots.” It raised a few eyebrows, but I never got any follow-up questions.

You might think the answer is a lie, but it has core element of truth to it. It was really a Pinocchio story about an android trying to become sufficiently self-aware and independent so as to be the android equivalent of “a real boy.” It just so happened that she was styled as a female android, and her initial act of becoming self-aware was the realization that she had been in love with her former owner, a woman. Hence, lesbian robots.

The story that became my novel Beneath the Sky was described to friends as “about the Mayflower vs. a 747.” Certainly there were no pilgrim sailing ships or jumbo jets in the book, but it was true enough to show up (in modified form) in the blurb on the back cover.

Some other projects in the pipeline include, “a boy playing with Daddy’s ships,” “a reporter who goes to Hell,” and “learning chess from a dead man.” Later in the year, I hope to get started on “falling rocks”.

So if you ever hear one of these, it’s not me disrespecting you. It’s me making sure that the story gets onto the page and into your hands.

Harsh on Beginnings

Lately, I have become a very harsh judge on the opening pages of a novel – for that matter, on the opening line. If it doesn’t grab me early, I’m out of there.

I blame some of this on the Kindle. I’m more than willing to check out a new author or novel on the Kindle simply by downloading the free sample. However, there is a fair amount of crap out there, and I can usually tell within the first few pages. Maybe that’s unfair of me, but I’m not alone. Another author once said, “It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.”

So if that opening doesn’t grab me, and the rest of the first page doesn’t do much to pull me in either, then I’m probably skimming by the second page. And if I’m still skimming by page 5, that’s it. I almost never press on to the end of the sample in that case. I already know. If your opening has turned me off, it’s not worth sticking around to hope you’re going to turn it around by chapter 2.

The other thing I blame it on is Jim Butcher. Okay, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s close. In the last five or ten years, I’ve been exposed to some absolutely fabulous openings, and a number of them were written by Mr. Butcher. Others include Lilith Saintcrow, O.M. Grey, and J.C. Hutchins. There have been others of course, but those are the ones springing to mind right now.

Just to tease you, here are some of the openings from their novels. They may not be exact, because I’m quoting them from memory. (That in itself should be a sign of how good they were.)

My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

I was to be King.

The building was on fire, but this time it wasn’t my fault.

The president of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.

These grab my attention. They immediately pull me in and also leave a lot of questions unanswered. Your “working relationship”? Why were you not the King? Ok, whose fault is it? And what kind of four-year-old are we dealing with? I want to keep going to find out what’s going on, and by then these authors have hooked me even more deeply. Forget about skimming to page five. I’ve lost track of time by page five.

So now books without strong openings leave me flat, and if it’s a new author – even one who is good in all things but openings – I often don’t give them a chance. And I feel bad about that. I know that strong openings are something of a niche skill, and it’s a style that has only recently become more common. I look back at the SF/F books from the 70’s and 80’s, and many of them began with long expositions describing the world around us, or heaven forbid… prologues! Any many of them were really good books, but their openings sucked by comparison to some of the eye-grabby stuff we see now.

And the other reason I feel bad about it is that I recognize that my openings probably aren’t up to my own standards. Yes, I’ve tried to use my snap-judgment criteria to pump it up, but I don’t think they’re in the same league as Jim Butcher. (As an aside, Jim Butcher is great for readers… but terrible for writers’ egos. He’s just that much better than the rest of us.) So while I want to give others the same slack I’m hoping for, I’m just not willing to waste my limited reading time on someone who doesn’t grab me by the eyeball and suck me in.

Still, I think there’s hope for me. My openings are getting stronger, and the fact that I am such a harsh judge of openings means that I’m less likely to plop out a turd and hope for the best.

“It was a dark and swirly…” Nope. Gonna stop right there.

What are some of your favorite openings?