10/30/19

Recovering a Lost Story

The penultimate Blogtober post is upon us, and today’s topic is one I’ve been looking forward to all month. I have lost several stories over the years. I also have managed to recover several of them.

Today, I’m going to go over four examples of stories I lost and recovered, and the different techniques I used to bring them back to life.

Unclaimed Goods

The first example is my short story, coming out TOMORROW in The Goldilocks Zone by Flying Ketchup Press. I don’t have a link to the book yet, as I’m writing this post in advance. The Goldilocks Zone is an anthology of short stories, and is my first success in publishing.

I first wrote Unclaimed Goods with the intention of sending it to Sheila Williams at Azimov’s. The idea for the story came to me while I was in an airport, on my way to WorldCon in San Antonio. After attending a meeting with Sheila, I knew I had to write the story. Shortly after returning home, I sat in a Starbucks on a Saturday morning, and completed the first draft by that afternoon.

The short story went through two professional workshops and my writer’s group. I received a lot of positive feedback and a few ideas for how to improve it, but nothing substantial. I never did submit it to Asimov’s. I sort of abandoned it and moved on to other things.

Several months ago, when I saw the opportunity to submit it to Flying Ketchup, I opened Unclaimed Goods and looked at what I had. The story was good, but I saw a few places I could make it better. I made some minor changes, broadening the scope and tightening the prose. I submitted the story, and they loved it.

Unclaimed Goods was lost only in the sense that I’d given up and forgotten about it. Recovery was as simple as remembering it existed and applying the skills I learned since writing it.

Spin City

Like Unclaimed Goods, I knew where the story was. I could go find it. I even had printouts. The problem was that I first wrote it when I was a teenager, and it was kind of terrible.

Originally called The Arthur Kane Stories, it was three short stories fused together, covering the three most important cases in the private investigator’s life. I had some good ideas, but I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote the stories, and I put too much of myself in the main character.

For years, I had trouble moving on. I kept wanting to go back and fix this one story. I told people I was a writer, and that I had this finished novel, but I stopped sharing it because I knew how bad it was. The voice in my head would yell, “But still! I’m a writer, damn it! I wrote a whole book! I just need to FIX it!”

Two years ago, I fixed it. This was after I’d finished The Repossessed Ghost, so my first novel became my second. I lifted the names and some of the events from the old story and dropped them into a fresh outline. I changed the narrative from third person to first person, and I leaned into some of the noir elements I accidentally included in the original draft. Sherlock Holmes and Harry Dresden influenced me, and for Nanowrimo 2017, I wrote the first 50,000 words of Spin City.

The story was lost in the sense that it only ever existed in larval state. Once I grew enough as a writer to give the story the treatment it deserved, I rewrote it. I opened a new project and started from scratch, placing a few of the old bones in a new body. I recovered Spin City by recreating it, fresh and new.

Synthetic Dreams

As of this writing, the first draft of Synthetic Dreams still isn’t done. I’m working on it. For a while, I had to put it down, and I was afraid I would need to abandon it.

The summer of 2017, before I dove into Spin City, I had this brief idea for a story set about a hundred years after The Singularity. The idea was small, but the scope huge. In July or August, I tried writing a couple of chapters. I didn’t have an outline and I didn’t know what the story was really about. I just had the idea, and my test chapters worked. I thought I might be able to turn it into an entire novel.

Then I had to focus exclusively on Spin City, so my initial idea for Synthetic Dreams got filed away. I spent most of 2018 finishing the first draft of Spin City, completing the first draft just before heading to New York City for the Writer’s Digest conference.

On the Writing Excuses Cruise in 2018, I was working on a novelette, The Exorcism of Jack Evans. As an exercise for the cruise, I wrote a full outline for Synthetic Dreams. Out of the blue, the idea became real and I knew I had to write it.

For Nanowrimo 2018, I wrote the first 50,000 words of Synthetic Dreams in around 19 days. Going into it, I didn’t think I could write that fast, especially this weird third person story about genderless non-humans.

In 2019, I needed to work on the next draft of Spin City. Twice, I had to stop working on Synthetic Dreams so I could focus on the other story. I went so long without working on it that I forgot how to move forward.

The vision was gone. My ideas left me. I wrote half a novel and I didn’t know the characters anymore, or where they were going. I no longer knew how they were going to solve the mystery. I lost the story. It was gone.

I still had my outline and a bunch of notes. I poured over all of the material I had, but I struggled to get the flavor of the story back in my mouth. I didn’t know what to do.

I wound up going back to the beginning and revising with fresh eyes. The story wasn’t finished, but I had 50,000 words I could edit. The exercise forced me to read the story critically. The process rewired my brain for the story I wanted to tell.

When I reached the point in my story where the words ended and I needed to keep going, I was on Writing Excuses Cruise 2019. To my shock and amazement, the words flowed. It felt slow and clumsy at first, but I found the story inside me after all. I picked up the threads and moved forward.

I lost Synthetic Dreams through time and distance. I recovered it by immersing myself in the story I still had, trusting myself as a storyteller to be able to fill in the blanks and keep going when I ran out of material. I wound up having to rewrite some of the outline, but that’s okay. I went through the same thing when drafting Spin City. There’s something about the 3/4 mark of the story that throws everything out of whack.

A Clean Slate

My last example of a story I’ve lost is actually the subject of my post for tomorrow, so I’m not going to get too much into it today. It was my first Nanowrimo attempt, and I still think the idea is worth writing.

The recovery of A Clean Slate is going to take elements from all the previous examples. It’s a story that’s sat in my head for years, similar to The Arthur Kane Stories. It’s one I’ve lost the threads for, like Synthetic Dreams. My plan is to try it in Nanowrimo again, this time with an outline so I don’t get lost along the way.

Parting Thoughts

I have other stories that I started and abandoned that I may never try to recover. There’s one about an order of mystical knights that celebrate the day, that must grapple with the idea of a demon finding redemption. There’s another story that’s inspired by a song, which involves a dancer becoming the warrior her people need in order to throw back a monstrous horde.

I said earlier in the month that ideas are cheap, and they are. I have lots of ideas and I can make more. There is no end to the number of stories I can tell. The only thing I’m short on is time.

10/29/19

How to Revise a Draft

We’re in the home stretch. This is the 29th post in a row, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m feeling a little bit time displaced with this one, because I came up with all my topics about a month ago, and I’m writing this essay a few days before posting it. With my upcoming travel to L.A., it seemed a good idea to get the rest of the posts written in advance. That way, the rest of my writing time this month could be dedicated to Synthetic Dreams.

All of this is to say that, here at the beginning, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to say on this subject. It’s exactly the same experience as writing a novel, where the real writing happens during revision.

Know When to Revise

Before you crack open your freshly minted manuscript, determine if it’s time yet to touch it. If you just wrote “THE END” on your 100,000 word SciFi novel, it’s too early. Give the story some space. Let it breathe. Go work on something else.

On the other hand, if the novel has been sitting on your hard drive or in a drawer for the last several months, and you can barely remember how you even started the blasted thing, you might be ready. The best you can do is approach revisions with fresh eyes. If you just spent the last 3 to 6 months staring at the same words, you will be blind to your mistakes because you needed the blindness in order to reach the end.

Having time and distance between yourself and your novel applies even if you’ve already received feedback from your critique group. They are going to be bringing their own unique perspectives, and if you haven’t had a chance to wash the story out of your hair yet, you’re going to argue from the position of the early draft, reinforcing your mistakes rather than acknowledging them.

Before you revise, go on a vacation from the story. It’ll still be there later, and you’ll be better equipped to give it the kind of attention it deserves.

Revise for a Purpose

It may be that you are fully aware of a recurring problem in your drafts. Perhaps you are like me, and you use a lot of distancing language or extraneous blocking. It is purposely acceptable to declare, “during this revision, I’m only focusing on tightening the prose.”

Perhaps your critique group has helped you find a deep flaw in the manuscript that can only be resolved by making major structural changes. That is a perfect time to limit the scope of your revision to only focus on the parts of your manuscript pertinent to that change.

There is nothing wrong with taking multiple passes. Writers have a lot to remember. You don’t have to juggle all of the ideas at the same time while drafting or revising. Take each pass one at a time if you have to. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Pay Attention to Your Emotions

Sometimes while drafting, I feel like the greatest writer in the world. In my head, I’m laying down an award worthy story that is bold, interesting, provocative, and brilliant. I experience the fantasy of being a great writer while writing the fantasy that is the story of my characters.

During revision, cold reality creeps in. For the first time since I started the first draft, I’m seeing past my bullshit and experiencing the story as it is, rather than as I wish it were. Sometimes, it IS brilliant! And sometimes it is not.

This is a dangerous point, because this is where we see how far away the story is from being done. We typed “THE END” with the secret hope that we actually stuck the landing and won’t have to work it anymore. We emerge from the tunnel of creation into daylight, only to be presented with another tunnel of unknown length and darkness.

When you get feedback from your critique group, or when you start consuming your story for the next draft, pay attention to how your feel. If it’s good, celebrate! Pump your fists and cheer because at least part of your story works!

On the other hand, when you see the parts of your story that don’t work, be kind to yourself. Try to find the positive joy in the prospect of making the story better. Forgive yourself the mistakes you made, and look ahead to where you can make amends and turn the story into something that satisfies your vision. It’s during revision that you truly demonstrate your artistry, so the mistakes you find are opportunities to shine.

Techniques for Revision

There are lots of different ways to revise, so I’ll go through some of the techniques I use.

Read it out loud

In order to read a story aloud, you have to pass the story through different parts of your brain. There is a mechanical process as you work your jaw and your lips to form the words. You’re also forced to slow down a little, as you probably can’t talk as fast as you can read in your head. Also, your ear will hear things that your eye skips over.

One of the first things I do with each story is read it to Melissa. She likes me reading to her, and I like making my draft better by clearing up the simple mistakes revealed by simple vocalization.

Change your font

I draft in Scrivener, but I critique in Word. In Scrivener, I’m using 12pt Courier New. In Word, it’s either Times New Roman or Calibri.

Changing the font changes the shapes of the words and the spacing, which helps me see the work with different eyes.

I’ve heard some people swear by drafting in Comic Sans, but I’m not ready for that type of insanity yet. I’ve never been so blocked that I needed to punish my eyes with that font.

Find critique partners or Alpha/Beta readers

For both of my last novels, I wound up sharing first drafts of my story with people. I didn’t know any better with The Repossessed Ghost, and I didn’t realize that Spin City was still first draft when I sent it to my friends.

I am not going to share Synthetic Dreams with anyone until after it’s gone through a second draft. I do not enjoy sharing first draft pain with my friends. That’s a bad experience for me. You might feel differently, and maybe your first drafts are cleaner than mine.

Also, when you find early readers, make sure that you know what you’re getting into.

Parting Thoughts

Your story needs more than one draft. It’s possible you knocked it out of the park on the first draft, but it is highly unlikely. Do not deny your humanity. You will make mistakes, your perspective will change, and your original vision will change. The best thing you can do for your story is give it all of the time and work it deserves.

People talk about revising as they go. That is valid. I do it to a degree, because if I write something that really doesn’t work, it’s difficult for me to move on until I’ve cleared the jam. I don’t consider that a revision, though. That’s just fixing an early mistake. It might mean that my first draft is cleaner when I get to the end, but it will still be a first draft.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about salvaging a lost story which gets a little bit deeper into the idea of revising as you go.

10/28/19

Tone and Voice

We’re getting towards the end of Blogtober, and I’m still shocked I’ve been able to come up with writing tips every day this month. Not all of the posts have been absolute winners, but I think I’ve been able to convey a lot of useful information. The tips and insights may even be valuable. It’s all information I wish I had when I was younger.

Today’s topic came from a suggestion from my online writing community. Someone suggested I write about the difference between tone and voice.

This might wind up being a really short essay.

What is Tone?

With respect to stories, tone is the general feel and attitude of the narrative. With Halloween fast approaching, we’re exposed to more spooky, scary, or disturbing tones than other times of the year. Tone can describe the emotional feel, the amount of humor, the level of affluence, the degree of seriousness… tone is what the story tastes like.

We create the tone of our stories through our imagery and word choices. Here are a few examples:

Spooky

The full moon shone silvery light upon the foggy graveyard, its headstones protruding from the muddy earth like jagged, stony teeth. A gnarled oak, its twisted bare branches reaching towards a cold and uncaring sky, gave witness to the crack and groan of the ground as the eldritch horror broke free of its subterranean prison, reaching and clawing its way up and out through an open, hollow grave.

Somber

The pallbearers marched along the stony path, their heads down as they bore not only the mass of the coffin, but the weight of the loss of their friend. Funeral goers, dressed in black, some with gauzy veils, stood together in a small cluster, watching the last procession of their lost father, brother, friend. A gray sky full of thick clouds held back the warm comfort of the sun. Only the leaves from the nearby great oak offered any hint of the triumph of life, with its still green leaves lingering longer than usual into the deep, cooling months of fall.

Sultry

Mary took his hand and led him down the stony path, her eyes dark and shining, striking sparks every time she looked over her shoulder into his nervous face. He questioned the location she chose, but his protestations diminished every time she swayed her hips, each time the strap of her short black dress slipped from her shoulder. She slid the material back into place, slower each time, her mask of chastity and propriety slipping. She stopped near one of the headstones, no different from any of the others save for her mother’s name etched into the weather-worn stone. His hesitation evaporated when she pulled him down next to her on the cool grass, her slow smile playful, intoxicating, inviting.

All three of these scenes are set in a graveyard, and they all have different tones. In the first, I relied on typical Halloween imagery: fog, full moon, teeth, and headstones. The second has some similar imagery, but the sky is gray instead of black, and there is some contrast at the end with the green leaves.

The third one is about Mary Shelley.

What is Voice?

In regards to writing, voice refers to the unique diction and style the writer brings to their stories. It refers less to the content of the story and more to the way the story is told.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote with a very dense style of prose, packing each sentence with complex ideas. Stephen King relies on sharp imagery, the characters occasionally exaggerated, the prose punctuated with crass or shocking language. Tom Clancy wrote with firm, stoic language, with dry technical references giving credence to the realism of his military fiction.

There may not be any more new stories, but there are new and unique voices which make the stories fresh. A good example of voice is Chuck Wendig. Here is a tweet thread where he’s talking about apples:

When Chuck writes, he uses words that are tangy and crunchy, similar to his heirloom apples. He isn’t afraid to take wild swings in tone, from biting political commentary to silly asides with Myke Cole and Sam Sykes. If you follow Chuck on Twitter, you will recognize his voice when you pick up Wanderers or Damn Fine Story.

People talk about writers and their voice, but it’s not something the writer has full control over. They can pretend to write like someone for a while, and they can shift their voice over time, but voice is something that just develops with experience, as unique as the way a person walks.

Voice is one of those things your critique group may try to smother, by the way. If you are attached to a particular word choice which is accurate, but your critique group is urging you to use a different word, give the recommendation appropriate consideration, then go with your gut.

The Difference Between Tone and Voice

Tone is the content, and voice is the way the content is delivered. There is some overlap between tone and voice, and some voices are more suitable for delivering a particular type of tone. I can’t imagine reading a horror story written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example. Now that I’ve said it, I’d be fascinated to see what that’s like. But the density of his speech doesn’t lend itself to the way horror draws out tension, delivering bits and pieces of information over time.

The three examples above, written by me for this essay, all have different tones. But if you’re familiar with my writing, you can probably recognize my voice in all three. There are patterns of speech and word choices I rely on that are my hallmarks.

Parting Thoughts

Well… I guess this one wasn’t short, after all. I didn’t know I had so much I could say about tone and voice. Tone is intentional, while voice is integral and automatic. You can change the tone and you can mask your voice, but the former is easily mutable while the latter can be painful to simulate, like trying to imitate Christian Bale’s Batman voice for hours on end.

10/27/19

Writing a Compelling Character

Yesterday, we talked about world building and how it is important to only include details that are pertinent to your characters. Today, we’re going to talk about building characters that are worthy enough to have worlds of words dedicated to them.

What makes a character compelling? There are lots of answers, so we’re going to cast a wide net and look at several examples of compelling characters in popular media.

Also, let’s start with a definition. A compelling character is one that the reader is interested in enough that they will follow them through an entire story. The reader does not necessarily need to like the character in order for the character to be compelling.

Driven?

I’ve heard it said that a good character, one that a reader will be interested in reading, is one that is deeply motivated. Looking back through history, this is a quality shared by people like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Alexander Hamilton, and Amelia Earhart. These were all individuals of exceptional drive and motivation, and we get swept up in their story as they push to change the world.

Drive can transform a character into a compelling protagonist, but it’s not strictly necessary. I would not describe Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins as particularly driven. They are occasionally motivated to do more than they think they can, but drive is not what defines these characters or makes them compelling.

Competent?

Characters like Sherlock Holmes and Greg House (which are really the same character) are compelling because of their overwhelming competence. Historical examples of competent people making their mark on history include Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein. Thomas Edison could also fall into this category, though these days, his talents in marketing and spin outshine his technical prowess.

Some of the people I just mentioned are not particularly likeable. Their proficiency in a field is enough to make us want to follow them, because seeing an expert doing something well can be fascinating. It tickles our own fantasies of being the best in a field.

Relatable?

I already mentioned Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins, and they’re sometimes referred to as “everyman” characters. They may rise up to the challenge to do heroic things, but they do not start as heroes, and they may spend most of the story being just regular folk.

Of the qualities I’ve mentioned so far, I think relatability is the most important, but it is not a silver bullet answer. There are characters I find compelling that I do not relate to.

Buffy Summers and I do not have much in common. I am a normal human male with some technical skill and a desire to be the best writer I can. Buffy is the chosen Slayer, a young woman struggling to have a normal life while also combatting vampires and demons spewing out of the hellmouth her home was built upon. I don’t really relate to Buffy or the problems she faces, but I could easily follow her through years of stories.

I look for ways in which I can relate to a character, but it’s not a deal breaker if we’re not the same. Sometimes, I enjoy the differences. Sometimes, it’s another quality of the character that keeps me coming back for more.

Some Combination of Factors

Superman is an iconic, invulnerable alien whose only weaknesses include rare green meteor rocks, magic, and his own intrinsic humanity. In my opinion, the best Superman stories are less about tricking him into proximity with Kryptonite and more about forcing him to make moral decisions where none of his strength and speed can actually help him.

Batman is an iconic billionaire ninja that dresses up as a nocturnal flying rodent in order to intimidate villains. Without any actual superpowers, Batman employs creativity, technology, and wit in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with godlike beings and win the day against deadly foes.

Commander Data of the Starship Enterprise is an android, built with superhuman strength and intellect, but lacking the ability to feel simple emotions. He serves with humans, observing them, supporting them, all while longing to be one of them. The best stories about Data are the ones that explore what it means to be human.

All of these characters are a mixture of some of the qualities I mentioned before. Batman and Data are both highly driven and highly competent. Superman and Data are both extremely strong while retaining personality traits that could be described as naïve or innocent. All three are orphans, from a certain point of view. For these characters, it is the combination of several factors that makes them compelling, giving them depth for the writer and reader to explore.

How Do We Create Compelling Characters?

There is no single approach or one right answer for creating a compelling character. For the three main characters of my three novels, I took different approaches.

Mel from The Repossessed Ghost started with a voice. I could hear him clearly, and I knew what he was like before I gave him his own story. He started as a character in a roleplaying game, and while he changed significantly between mediums, the core of who he is remained the same. He is something of an everyman, reluctant but with a heart of gold. He isn’t particularly competent, but he has qualities that make him endearing.

Arthur from Spin City developed over the course of decades. When I first wrote him, he started as a copy of me. Over time, I gave him different strengths and weaknesses. For a while, he was my take on Sherlock Holmes, hyper-competent and driven. For Spin City, he is a man struggling with alcoholism and depression. My hope is that he’s relatable and interesting, but in the end, he may not be any more compelling than I am.

Dee-ehn from Synthetic Dreams is an introvert that’s a bit neurotic. Dee-ehn is afraid of death and spiders, is deeply spiritual, following a religion called Purity, which dictates that its members avoid networking and engaging in other activities which may pollute their base code. All of the characters in Synthetic Dreams are non-human, artificial beings, but my hope is that they are all relatable because of the ways in which they are human. They experience emotions, including love and fear, and just like the rest of us, they grapple with the question: why am I here?

Parting Thoughts

What makes a character compelling for one reader won’t necessarily work for the next. Some readers are drawn to the emotional struggles, and could care less if the character can bend steel bars with their bare hands. Some readers are in it for the spectacle, and want to experience the story through characters that can hold themselves in a fight.

It may be easier to describe how NOT to make a character. An uncompelling character is apathetic, neither weak nor strong, living an uncomplicated life with neither highs nor lows. An uncompelling character is inert, neither pushing the world around them nor being pushed in return. They do not have a strong moral code, and they are not compelled to reach beyond their current station in life. They are neither rich nor poor. They have no interesting opinions on condiments. Even a bland nobody that thinks ketchup is too spicy sets themselves apart in at least one area.

10/26/19

World Building Pet Peeves

Yesterday, I mentioned how profanity can be an opportunity to do some world building. When the writer thinks about what is secret, holy, or unpleasant in their world, then use those things to craft the world’s profanity, the effect can be colorful realism which grounds and supports the rest of the narrative. It can be subtle, clever, and fully realized in the writer’s story.

Today, we’re going to talk about world building in the way writers get it wrong, and what they can do to be more efficient.

A Darling that Refuses to Die

Sometimes, writers (and gamers!) get caught up in some aspect of the world they created that doesn’t serve the larger narrative. The writer will spend some amount of time working out all the details, imagining it, maybe drawing diagrams and writing lore to accompany it.

For example, let’s say the writer has come up with an amazing and elaborate church. They can see it clearly in their mind. They draw it, write history for it, craft an entire religion and pantheon to inhabit it. The stained glass windows, crafted on the sandy beaches of the Hawani, the enemy nation, underwent a journey all their own to arrive at the church grounds, and have been given prominence such that when the morning sunlight shines through its center, its as though a finger of the god of tears and laughter has–

This can go on and on, and it might be really interesting and fun! But then in the story, it turns out the main character is an atheist that doesn’t even go inside the church. They just camp along the edge of the yard one night before packing up and moving on.

The writer is torn, because they LOVE this piece of the world they’ve crafted. They want the reader to love it, too, and how else is the reader going to enjoy all this luscious world building if the details aren’t included in the prose?

The advice is “kill your darlings,” and this church is one of them. It doesn’t serve the story. It doesn’t have anything to do with the characters. It is detached from the plot and the struggles on the page, and when the reader lands on this huge block of beautifully constructed masonry and glass, they’re pulled out of the immediacy and needs of the characters.

Chilling Your Drink with an Iceberg

How did the writer come up with this church in the first place? Why do they have it sitting in their notes, ready and waiting to drop into the narrative?

My second pet peeve around world building is that sometimes writers build way more than they need. The story demands a scaffolding, an impression of depth that makes the reader think that there is more than the immediate environment surrounding the characters. What some writers will do is build a city when all they needed is a wall.

This is different than the “kill your darlings” peeve. When the writer drops a detail into the narrative that doesn’t serve the story, it is a problem for the reader as well as the writer. It’s there on the page for all to see, taking up space and altering the pacing in ways the writer may not have intended.

Overbuilding the world is a different problem, in that the reader can be completely unaware of the undertaking the writer endured. These are the details that only appear in the writer’s notes. The story remains the same whether or not the writer went to the trouble of creating all these extra details.

Why is this a pet peeve of mine? The story is a journey, and the characters and the world are the vehicle by which the writer carries the reader. The larger the vehicle, the more unwieldy it can be.

Let’s use the church example from before, but let’s say the writer doesn’t include it in their story. They give a little bit of a description of the church from a distance, and the characters move on like they were supposed to, allowing the story to unfold naturally. Everything is great so far, but what happens when the writer needs another church or religion?

The writer has to make some choices and do some work. Their notes include all these details they already crafted in this other part of the world. They could just lift the details and drop it in where it makes the most sense to the story. However, they’ll need to check to make sure it still makes sense in the new location. They’ll need to walk through it, making sure it lines up and doesn’t feel disjointed. If the pantheon includes a fish god, it won’t make as much sense if the new setting is in a desert.

If it looks like the church won’t work in the new location, then they have to build a new one. The writer has now doubled the amount of work they needed to do for the story, and the reader’s experience has not been doubly enhanced.

Some writers really love world building, so it’s not a big deal to them. They don’t see it as work. I think world building is okay, but I’d rather spend my time working on the characters and the specifics of the prose.

World Building Classes Encourage Inefficiency

My first peeve was about writers including details that they shouldn’t, which comes from my second peeve, which is about writers building more than they should, which comes from my third peeve: world building classes and panels encourage writers to overbuild.

I have attended dozens of panels on world building, and they usually focus on a specific aspect of the world. Animals, magic systems, religion, geography, language… you name it. These classes focus on one facet and talk about how writers get the details wrong, and how the audience can work to do better. They talk about research, and they’ll include details about the area of focus that are interesting and tantalizing to include in a story.

Friends, if your characters are not interested in horses, you do not need to focus on the equine details of your world building. If your characters know nothing of boating or bartering, you do not need to plot out the entire trade route of the ships and vessels that roam the high seas and up the rivers and along the coast line.

If the plot of your story involves the specifics of language and religion, then it’s important that at least one of your characters has an interest in those subjects, which means that you’ll need to do the appropriate amount of world building for those details.

I still attend some panels and classes on world building because I think they’re interesting. I go for the fun. I have yet to attend a panel that talks about world building in a way that is actually helpful to the writer.

What You Need to Know about World Building

If I were to run a class on world building, it would be brief, and it would start from one simple rule: only build the parts of the world that your characters care about.

If you follow that rule, you will be efficient, nimble, and less likely to include details that are not relevant to your story. You will not be anchored down by the weight of your notes or tempted to include beautiful details that add nothing but bloat.

Readers connect with and care about the characters. If the characters care about aspects of the world, the reader will also care about those aspects.

Also, world building according to the needs of your plot is fine, but the plot of your story should be relevant to your characters as well. If you’ve crafted a plot that is completely tangential to your characters, I’m not sure how you’re going to make the story work as a whole.

Parting Thoughts

If I wasn’t clear, I don’t hate world building. My pet peeves are more about being inefficient, or doing things in the writing process without intention. If there has been a theme this much, it has been: write with intention.

10/25/19

Profanity and Other Ugly Language

By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of purgatory! It’s time to talk about swear words, slurs, cusses, profanity, and other ugly language. There may be some blue words in this post, so if you’re one of delicate sensibilities, you might want to give today’s essay a pass.

But we all know what you’re here for. You’re reading this to get the real balderdash and codswallop. So let’s dive right in!

Why Use Profanity?

As the writer of your story, you get to choose every single word that lands in the narrative. You have complete control, so why might you choose to dirty up your story with offensive words, consarn it?

Sometimes your characters demand saltier language. Even the most pious or taciturn individual will be moved to blast the heavens with the most explosive expletive after stepping on a Lego or smashing their thumb with a hammer. The gritty protagonist, finally face to face with the one that murdered their parents, might tell their foe to go sard themselves. And some characters are just naturally profane. Those individuals don’t require powerful motivation to let off a hearty “Zounds!”

Being true to your characters and their voices may mean using less clean language. If your characters start using words you wouldn’t normally use, that’s okay! It’s great, in fact! You should want your characters to sound different from one another, and different from you.

Allowing profanity in your story can give it a level of reality that helps immerse the reader. If it feels natural to you when writing it, it will feel natural to the reader when reading it.

Going back and smudging out the provocative words describing copulation and fecal matter will make your prose as unnatural and strange as this sentence.

The Intention of Offense

Let’s say you’re writing a scene and you have an opportunity to drop a slur into the dialog. Maybe one of your characters is a racist and they’re talking about another character that is of the race they are prejudiced against. You can imagine writing the dialog with the racial slur, and you can also imagine writing it without. Either approach seems like it would work. How do you decide?

The very presence of some words will offend or hurt some readers. For some people, the context does not matter. This is a danger for all profanity, but racial slurs are especially damning.

You have to decide your intentions. Is the narrative you’re constructing worth offending some portion of your readers? I don’t know if there’s a right answer to this question. To me, context matters, but I’m a cis white male. My perspective is from a position of social privilege.

I disagreed with the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my stance on this subject. There are other viewpoints and perspectives, so you have to decide your intentions on your own.

Note that it is entirely possible to include a racist in your story without resorting to racial slurs. There are options, and sometimes the subtle ones are more effective.

Profanity as World-Building

We already touched on how profanity can reflect on character. It can also say a lot about the world the characters live in. The profane words of one society are different than those of another. Cripes, I’ve been using profanity throughout this essay, but they probably don’t register as naughty words because they’re from a different era. Cuss words are not static. They change over time.

I don’t want to get too deep into what turns a word into profanity. Swear words usually pertain to what is considered private, sacred, or unpleasant. “Zounds” from earlier is a shortening of “God’s wounds.” “Cripes” is a minced oath, taking the place of “Christ.” You already know the modern words we use for excrement (unpleasant) and fornication (private).

In other words, if you’re writing about a world that is different than our own, you can infer what is private, sacred, or unpleasant in that world by turning those things into swear words.

I have two examples from my current work in progress, Synthetic Dreams. The first is “frag,” which is used like our F word. I’m sure I’ve seen it used in other stories the same way, but it makes a lot of sense in Synthetic Dreams because all of the characters are synthetic life forms, and “fragmentation” is lifted straight out of regular tech speak for a file system becoming less ordered.

The other example from my novel is “mud pounder.” In my story, there are two main physical builds of synthetic people. There are the administrators, which are smaller and generally more graceful. Then there are the laborers, which are larger and generally stronger. “Mud pounder” is a slur in my world applied to laborers, implying that they’re big, dirty, and dumb. Without doing any other work, you already get the sense of the race/class disparity between administrators and laborers.

Parting Thoughts

If your first instinct while writing is to use a swear word, do it. In my opinion, it’s better to stay true to the story and to your character’s voice than to worry about offending a potential reader.

It’s important to remember the difference between offending someone and hurting them.

Don’t be afraid to create your own profanity, especially if you’re writing for a different time or a different world. The real world is constantly attempting to create new swear words. I’ve personally been called a traitor cuck to my face, and probably a soyboy, NPC, or snowflake behind my back. You get the idea. We naturally throw words at each other like weapons, trying to bludgeon and cut. Having your characters do the same in your stories will give it an extra dimension of realism.

10/24/19

Online Distractions

The topic I was supposed to write about today was “Marketing and Writing to a Target Audience.” Why did I think I could write a full essay on that?

Here is what I know about marketing. The cover is ridiculously important. There’s an entire career dedicated to the marketing hustle, and I’m not skilled in it. In fact, the closer I get to it, the more uncomfortable it makes me.

Here is what I know about writing to a target audience. Uh… not much? I write stories that I want to read, so I suppose my target audience is me. Anything else would feel dishonest, and I question the quality of the stories I might produce if I tried writing something I didn’t want to read.

So there’s my abbreviated take on “Marketing and Writing to a Target Audience.” Now let’s talk about online distractions, which lines up nicely with the topics from the previous two days.

Identifying the Distraction

There’s nothing wrong with visiting social media or YouTube or Reddit. Whatever your favorite flavor, it’s fine, as long as it’s not out of control. When it comes to these sites, how can you tell the difference between a revitalizing break and a productivity sapping distraction?

First, pay attention to how much time you spend with your eyes directed at a site. Compare that to how long you’re working on your manuscript. You must determine if the ratio is healthy or not. Ideally for me, for every hour I set aside for writing, I don’t want to be looking at the internet for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Basically a 3 to 1 ratio, which is honestly probably too generous.

It’s possible for you to be looking at your manuscript but not actually writing. This happens to me from time to time, where I want to write, but I’m too busy thinking about something I read on social media or in the news.

Different writers have different needs. To determine if your online behavior is benign or destructive, you must be honest with yourself and what your needs are. The 3 to 1 ratio might be great for me, but maybe you need 2 to 1, or 10 to 1. Just remember to be honest and be kind with yourself when you’re doing this kind of evaluation.

Dealing with the Distractions

You have taken a long, hard look at your writing and online activities, and you’ve identified a problem. You’re spending too much time on one or more sites. What do you do about it?

The obvious answer — close your browser — works. It’s a fine answer, and it’s as far as some people need to go. With the might of their willpower, they can close the valve on the source of the problem and dig right into their manuscript. For everyone else, it’s like trying to stay on a diet. If you’ve ever struggled sticking with a plan, you may need to try some other techniques.

Something I like to do is turn my distraction into a motivator. If I’m spending too much time on Twitter, I start a writing sprint on Twitter, inviting my friends to participate. In one move, the distraction is now an accountability vehicle.

If the distraction is something else, like YouTube or Netflix, I’ll turn it into a reward. I’ll give myself a reward trigger, such as “once I’ve written X number of words, I’m allowed a video.” Or “between thirty minute sprints, I’m allowed to watch something as a cool down.”

Often for me, the distraction is the news. There is so much wrong right now, I find it difficult to think about anything else. This is a type of distraction I don’t have much of an answer for yet. Some might say, “stop reading the news.” I can’t. The train is moving at full speed and the bridge ahead is broken, and I can’t close my eyes and look away. Not knowing makes the terror worse.

Change Environment

My last tip, which falls more in line with the “just turn it off” crowd, is to change where you’re writing so that it is more difficult for you to become distracted.

I do most of my writing on a Microsoft Surface. This is a fine device that doesn’t have a ton of horsepower. I can’t really play many games on it, and I refuse to install software development tools on it. There is Scrivener, Office, and that’s about it. By only putting my productivity software on my Surface, I limit the amount of distractions I can fall into.

Then I change where I write. Sometimes I’ll go in the backyard. Often I go to Starbucks. I’ve even been known to write in restaurants during November. By changing my physical location, I’m altering how much access I have to the internet. The wifi is crappy in my backyard, limited at Starbucks, and non-existent at the counter at Denny’s. Also, when I’m out in public, I’m less likely to watch a video because I rarely have headphones and I don’t want to broadcast and disturb other people.

Parting Thoughts

I mentioned mental health yesterday, and that changes the dynamic of online distractions. If you suffer from depression as I do, it’s possible the online activity you’re participating in is less a distraction and more of an escape. Sometimes, all a person can do is put on reruns of Star Trek:TNG and play some solitaire while they wait it out.

Most of the advice I offered in this essay can only be applied when you’re in good mental health, and the distractions are coming from a place of desire rather than a place of pain.

If you’re healthy but finding it difficult to put away the online distractions, look at my previous two pages in regards to Staying on Task and Handling Writer’s Block.

Above all, treat yourself with honesty and kindness, just as you treat others with the same honesty and kindness. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Treat it and yourself accordingly.

10/23/19

Handling Writer’s Block

Considering what I’ve been going through the last few days, writer’s block is a really appropriate topic for me to cover right now. Tonight we’re going to define writer’s block, the various ways it can manifest, and one or two approaches for getting past it.

Is Writer’s Block Real?

I have at least one friend that will tell you that writer’s block isn’t real. When a journalist gets up in the morning and they have a deadline, or when a grad student has an assignment, they get to work. They don’t have the time or leisure to entertain writer’s block. By that argument, according to my friend, writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Other friends talk about writer’s block like it’s some kind of disease. Something they may or may not be able to treat. When asked how they’re doing on their manuscript, they might answer simply, “I have writer’s block” the way someone might say “I have pink-eye.”

Writers get blocked. I think it happens to fiction writers more than non-fiction, but it can happen to anybody. As a term, “writer’s block” might be loaded and misused the same way “kill your darlings” is sometimes misunderstood. When a writer is unable to produce, it is accurate to describe that condition as writer’s block. It is accurate, but not very helpful unless the reasons for the block are examined.

Why do Writer’s Get Blocked?

Fear can block a writer. Fear of failure, of success, of getting it wrong… fear can freeze a person like a possum playing dead. Fear is insidious, because it disguises as other emotions, and it can be subtle. Fear can keep us from submitting our work or sharing it with friends. It can also keep us from completing our work. If you never finish the story, you never have to submit it, right?

Uncertainty or ignorance can also keep a writer from being productive. You can be moving ahead with the story at full speed, then hit a wall. How will the character get out of this one? How do we span the gap between what I saw in my head and what is appearing on the page? What do I write to fill in this gap in the outline? Not knowing what’s next can make a writer hesitate. Fear of getting it wrong can keep the writer frozen, unable to take the next step forward.

External factors can also block a writer. Creating fiction, finding the right words and putting them in the correct order on the page takes time and energy. If the writer has a full time job, maybe working overtime, they might find some days they don’t have the energy at the end of the day to make the words happen. In a previous post, I said healthy writers having more stamina. This is one of the places where it helps. But even the most industrious writer runs out of steam eventually, especially if they’ve been pushing themselves hard for a long time.

There are many other reasons a writer can be blocked, but the last I’ll mention here is depression. Mental health impacts everything we do, and not just writing. Someone like me, a programmer and a writer, might find themselves in a predicament where they can’t product code or fiction. That failure to act compounds, adding extra internal barriers to productivity on all fronts.

What To Do About Writer’s Block

Before a writer can handle their writer’s block, they must determine the underlying cause. Writer’s block is a symptom of some other problem. The only way to treat the symptom is to address the underlying cause, which takes time and introspection.

If fear is blocking you, take some time to build up confidence. This could mean writing something else that’s light and fun. Or, it could mean sharing some of your writing with someone that’s supportive, that enjoys reading your work. Fear is tricky, but once seen, it disappears like a shadow at noon.

If the reason you can’t write is because you don’t know what comes next, take a step back and figure it out. Go for a walk and think about the story. Try expanding your outline. If you’re a discovery writer that eschews outlines, try making a tiny outline, just for this next part. Or, try some flow of consciousness free writing in a separate text editor. Free writing can often prime the pump and get things flowing again. It’s remarkable how effective it can be.

If you’re just exhausted or depressed, the best thing you can do is forgive yourself. Be honest and kind to yourself. Don’t push yourself into unhealthy behavior. If work is consuming all your time, then it’s not time to write.

Depression is common among all the writers I know. I don’t see any of my coworkers succumbing to it, but I see it in my writing communities all the time. Some very famous writers are open and clear about their mental health issues.

As a society, we need to get past the stigmas surrounding mental healthy issues. A wound in the brain is just as serious, or more so, than a wound in the flesh. It is unhealthy and painful to walk on a broke leg. It is equally unhealthy to ignore depression, something I’m guilty of all too often.

Parting Thoughts

The last few days, I’ve struggled. I’ve been blocked. It hasn’t impacted my ability to write these essays, but it has kept me from making meaningful progress on Synthetic Dreams.

Why am I blocked? It’s a bit of everything I just described. I thought it was just a funk, a bit of depression keeping me from moving forward. A couple of nights ago, I figured out that I was trying to make a scene work that could never work, because it didn’t line up with my notes. The main characters went some place looking for a connection that didn’t exist, and I kept trying to will the connection into being. Ignorance of what comes next stopped my forward progress.

Then there’s the pressures from work, the constant fear of failure… I show up every night, open Scrivener, put the words in front of me and my hands on the keyboard… and I can’t make the words materialize.

It’s easy to just describe this as writer’s block, but that does nothing to address the underlying problems. I figured out what I was doing wrong with the scene and correct that problem. I’ve written some more notes, expanding that part of my outline that looked murky. Now I just need to move forward.

When next I try to work on Synthetic Dreams, I need to go with care. I haven’t been able to program at work, either, which is a sign that it’s not just writer’s block. I’ve got other issues to contend with, so I need to remember to be gentle and kind with myself, and not try to push too hard.

At the same time, I do need to continue showing up and being ready to do the work, because that is also a form of kindness to myself. To succumb to “I have writer’s block” and let that be the excuse why my novel is unfinished… I know how unhappy that will make me. So I’m not going to do that.

10/22/19

Staying on Task

I’m participating in Blogtober, and this is the 22nd post in a row. We’re also approaching Nanowrimo, where many people across the world will set themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days, a feat I’ve succeeded at three times. Suffice it to say, I know a thing or two about staying on task, which is the subject of today’s essay.

Will Power

Let’s start with the first tool in my toolbox, which is sheer force of will. When I want to get something done, I set my mind to it and dig in like a mule. It’s a strength (and sometimes weakness) I’ve cultivated over the years.

How do I apply my will? Personally, I tie it to my wants and desires. When I want something bad enough, and it’s within my control to attain it, I push towards that goal.

For example, this month, I want to complete Blogtober, because every time I’ve succeeded at that, I’ve succeeded at Nanowrimo. My desire is great enough that I can overcome my usual difficulties with blogging, which include distraction and a fear of not knowing what to say. The benefits from completing this month-long task are enough to get me to schedule time each day.

I can turn the desire around to avoid doing things, too. I want to maintain my current weight, so I won’t eat the doughnuts that appear in the break room at work. I want to finish my novel, so I won’t play a bunch of computer games when I get home. From the outside, it may look like I’m capable of resisting temptation, but really it’s just focusing on my greater desire over the lesser.

Scheduling and Time Management

For short tasks, will power can be enough to get from the beginning to the end. Longer tasks, on the other hand, usually require time management and prioritization.

Looking at Blogtober as the example again, it’s not enough for me to just say, “I’m going to write a blog post every day this month.” In order for me to maximize my chances of staying on task, I needed to break the large task into many smaller ones. One for each day. Not only did that make the overall task easier to comprehend and manage, it laid out for me what I needed to do and when I needed to do it to achieve my goals.

Even smaller, short-term tasks can get a boost from a time component. Often, I will bring up a stopwatch when I’m writing and do sprints. The task then becomes, “write as much as possible while the clock is running,” which puts me in a different frame of mind. It gives me permission to silence my inner editor. It lets me shut out all my other cares in the world, for during those 20 to 30 minutes, the only thing I need to do is write.

Accountability

I’ve talked about the importance of community and family when it comes to writer support. They can also be a great resource for helping you stay on task in the form of accountability.

They don’t have to be active to keep you accountable. Just telling a friend that you’re going to do something sets up a promise between yourself and another person. It makes the task more real when you put it out in the open, and not something just floating in the recesses of your brain.

Friends and family can be active accountability buddies, though. When I go to the garage to write, my wife will sometimes come out and check up on me to make sure I haven’t slid into the land of YouTube videos or solitaire. If you let your friends and family know you can use some help staying on task, chances are good they will help.

I mentioned sprints before, and that’s another place where your online community can help keep you accountable. On Twitter and on Discord, my writing communities perform together in sprints, all racing against the same clock. We’ll share word counts and favorite lines, sometimes.

Forgive Yourself

Sometimes, you set yourself up to try and eat the whole elephant. Sometimes, factors beyond your control intervene to keep you from staying on task. Sometimes, you’ve had a bad day and it’s much easier to eat the doughnut than stay on your diet.

It’s okay.

Don’t let minor slip-ups get you down. Forgive yourself, then get back on task.

All too often, it feels like a break in the pattern or rhythm throws everything off, and it seems impossible to keep going with your goal. Setbacks suck. They feel bad. But setbacks happen, and it’s how we deal with them that makes all the difference.

Parting Thoughts

I might not participate in Nanowrimo this year, even if I succeed at Blogtober. This is because I might not finish Synthetic Dreams before November as I planned. I hit a wall a few days ago, and I kept trying to write a scene that wasn’t working, that would never work. When November rolls around, I don’t want to start a new first draft if I’m still working on an old one.

If I don’t participate in Nanowrimo, it’s okay. The task I’m setting for myself is to write novels. Nanowrimo is just a tool I use to help me stay on task. In this case I’m stepping back and looking at my priorities and my desires. Whether or not I write 50,000 words in November, I’m staying on task.

10/21/19

Writer Support

With a few exceptions, writing is a single person activity. It’s one person with one writing instrument, conquering the blank page one word at a time. Even cowriters take turns during the drafting period. I don’t believe it’s controversial for me to describe writing as a solitary activity.

Writers can get lonely and feel isolated while writing. Stay too long in the isolation chamber of the writer’s imagination and you go crazy. That’s where good support becomes necessary, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Friends and Community

I imagine at a certain point in a writer’s career, the audience becomes substantial enough that the writer generates their own community of fans celebrating their work. I haven’t reached that point, and realistically speaking, I’m not sure I ever will. As I’m writing this essay, I’m feeling particularly despondent over the prospect of my writing career taking off.

Discouragement is part of the writer experience, and one way to deal with the negative emotions is to become involved with a writing community. Struggling to make the story the best it can be, suffering through setbacks, quailing at the prospect of pitching or submitting queries, wallowing in the mountain of rejections… this is what writers go through, and the writing community is full of people that are both understanding and sympathetic.

I’m recommending you become involved in your writing community, but I’m not telling you to go whine at them. Don’t be a sponge. The best way to engage is to cheer people on in positive ways. They will appreciate your support, and the process of trying to lift someone else up has a tendency to uplift the lifter.

Once you’re a positive part of an active writing community, your friends and acquaintances will support you, and you’ll find strength to persevere. This isn’t a quid pro quo situation where they’ll only help you if you help them. Supporting and being supported by your writing community is about strength in numbers.

When you engage with your writing community, be honest with them and with yourself. If the support is only one way, either way, the relationship isn’t going to work out.

Family

I am extremely fortunate in that my whole family supports my writing life. My wife comes with me to conventions. My daughter joins me for Nanowrimo sometimes. My son isn’t interested in the writing so much, but he offers vocal support and sometimes even brings me a coffee when I’m head down in a project.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I am. If you and your spouse are at odds over your writing career, it is important to find compromise, otherwise you’re going to lose one or the other. Compromise can mean scheduled time, where the writer gets to write uninhibited certain hours of the week, and the spouse gets to work on activities during that time that make them happy.

If you have a spouse that is vexed by your writing career, work with your spouse to determine the specific aspect of the activity that is giving them a problem. Is it a time management issue, where your spouse is feeling neglected? Is it monetary, where they feel like you’re spending too much money on writing related activities? If you can pin down where the friction is happening, it will help you find the best places to compromise.

Personal Care

External support is great, but the writer must take care of themselves. This means making good decisions around diet, exercise, and sleep.

A healthy writer outperforms an unhealthy writer. They have more energy and stamina. Their mind focuses more clearly and they have a greater ability to find the words when they reach for them. The stereotype of an artist suffering for their work is an over-exaggeration at best, a straight up lie at worst.

You don’t need to drink alcohol to write. If you’ve convinced yourself that you need to drink to produce great art, you have been deceived and you have a problem. It’s fine to have a drink every now and then to help relax into the work, but please make healthy choices.

The world is full of distractions and noise, but we still have to live in it. When the distractions get to be too much, turn them off. If the noise drowns out the words you’re trying to form in your head, seek a different venue.

Personally, I get bogged down on Twitter and reading the news. It’s difficult, but sometimes I just have to turn it all off so I can listen to the voices in my head, which are quietly and desperately trying to talk to me about my story. Unless I get away from the distractions, I can’t hear it clearly, which adds an additional distraction of feeling guilty and unfulfilled.

Parting Thoughts

Live your life. Go for walks, talk to your family, eat nice food, and make healthy choices. Engage with your friends, share your interests, and don’t be afraid to be excited about the story you want to finish writing.

Then write.

It’s okay to feel lonely or discouraged from time to time as a writer. In this moment, as I’m typing these words, I’m feeling both. But I know that I have people that love and support me, and I know that this funk is temporary. I’m working on a great story, and if I keep making good choices, my great stories may some day be available to other people.