2014 Year-End Summary, 2015 Goals

resolutionsBefore closing out another year, it’s good to take stock of what got done, and what the year ahead will look like. Then next year, we can giggle at how off-base all my hopes and predictions were :)

The biggest accomplishment this year was saying so-long to my full-time job, and taking up writing as my new full-time (and then some) pursuit. I mostly already talked about stuff I did in 2014 here, at the six-month anniversary of said leap.

Here’s what I’ve got queued up for 2015:

* The novel, duh. As I work on implementing my editor’s suggestions, the manuscript for Blood’s Force has gone from 88K to 131K- since October. Holy crap! And I’m only 2/3 of the way done with the new rewrite. Once this is edited and sanity-checked, I’m publishing! Hopefully earlier in the year rather than later. Ebook first, then I’ll figure out print-on-demand.

* A promotional, free-to-read short story that takes place before the events of Blood’s Force. I had a vague idea in mind, but my editor’s suggestions will help cement something even better into place. This will become my primary task once Blood’s Force is done and published.

* At least one more short story for Retiring The Gods, hopefully two.

* Start outlining and drafting the next Sword and Starship book. In the process, pick up skills and tricks to make eventual ebook conversion easier. (I’m already shuddering over how long it will take to clean up the Blood’s Force manuscript and convert it to pristine HTML. When I first started writing it, I never imagined that HTML might be its final destination.)

* Keep writing monthly articles and screening submissions for The Daily WTF. I may be assuming even more responsibility soon: more articles, and mentoring other writers. Also, more income!

* Keep up with weekly blogging.

* Continue improving my blog and website as much as I can.

* Keep up with other interests- which is hard when I’m trying to cram so much writing in. Drawing, piano, language study, swordfighting, pleasure reading…

* Think about travel. If not going somewhere, at least plan something for 2016. I have the itch, and I’m leaning toward something international: Canada, or Europe. Heck, maybe both! I also have the goal of traveling as frugally as possible.

In another 6 months, I’ll update again on progress and goals. Happy New Year and best of luck to all of you on your endeavors!


Everyone Is The Hero

npcs(Image credit: Imagebase.net)

As you work on scenes- especially those in 1st person or 3rd person limited- it’s essential to nail down the character whose perspective you’re working from. I’ll call this the point-of-view (POV) character. You have to write from that head. You have to convey the sights, feelings, thoughts, and actions that are available to them.

In the process, it’s easy to forget about doing the same for all the other characters in the scene: I’ll call them NPCs (non-player characters). Ever read something that feels like one character interacting with a bunch of cardboard cutouts who pop up to say and do the right things at the right time? This is what happens when you write exclusively from the POV mindframe, and forget all the others.

“Well of course Miss Pennywright would give Ace Bedford the info he needs when he drops by her apartment unannounced!” Would she, though? Why? Is Bedford a friend of hers? Does she have an interest in Bedford solving the case? Even if she does, is there a chance she’d be creeped out by this guy showing up at her apartment out of the blue?

You must make sure your NPCs are thinking, feeling people too. They shouldn’t be doing things just because that’s what the POV character needs them to do.

Once you’ve outlined a scene- but before drafting it- play out the scene in your head, once for each NPC present, as though they were actually the POV character. Try thinking about the following:

  • What’s their mood when the scene begins?
  • How does their mood change as things happen? How are these changes conveyed? Is this true to the character?
  • What is their relationship/temperament toward the other characters present?
  • What do they want out of the other characters and current situation? What do they do to get it? Is this true to the character?

If you find any inconsistencies, iron them out.

Sometimes, playing this game, I surprise myself. I assume things are gonna happen one way, but when I really think about it from the NPC perspective, I realize it should be quite different. Often, it takes the scene- sometimes the entire plot– in a way more interesting direction.

Returning to our example above: suppose Miss Pennywright does want to help Bedford, but is paranoid given earlier events in the story. When Bedford shows up without notice, she assumes he’s an intruder, and prepares to hide/defend herself. Now we’ve injected conflict and suspense into a scene that would’ve been pretty tame otherwise.

This seems like a lot of work, but it can be really helpful to have these notes about WHY each character is doing what they’re doing- especially when you return much later for rewrites, and can’t remember what the heck you were thinking when you drafted this stuff. You can use comments to insert such notes in most word processors. Scrivener also has several places where you can attach notes to a scene. If you’d rather not do it that way, you can always maintain a separate document with scene notes.

The more thinking and planning you do up front, the better- but don’t worry about having every little detail mapped out. You’ll undoubtedly surprise yourself while drafting, and have to make changes to your outline- and to how all your characters respond.

Do you have any favorite tricks for keeping track of every character’s motivations? Drop me a line in the comments!


What Do YOU Contribute To Your Characters?

coffee_offerShort answer: caffeine and neuroses!

How much are your characters an extension of yourself?

This is a longer spectrum than one might think. At first blush, it might seem binary: either a character is based on you, or s/he isn’t. If s/he is, there’s a chance s/he’s the dreaded Mary Sue: a character who is 100% you (or what you wish you could be). Mary Sue tends to crop up in fanfiction, and is generally disliked. Why? Because when an author puts themselves in a work of fiction, they usually can’t help make it a masturbatory quest of wish fulfillment.

One of the most famous examples of a Mary Sue is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek. Wesley Crusher was pretty much Star Trek creator Gene Wesley Roddenberry imagining himself as a young lad in the Federation. A genius lad. A genius lad who makes friends with the Captain, saves the day on multiple occasions, and essentially becomes a starship crewman without ever having gone to Starfleet Academy and earning it like everyone around him. And it didn’t help that he wore embarrassing sweaters and whined all the time. Guess whom all the fans hated?

So to avoid Mary Sue and all the bad connotations, you might shy away from letting your characters have anything to do with you- which might be doing them a disservice. If they have absolutely nothing in common with you, you may have a hard time reaching inside and grabbing something to bring them to life on the page.

As a person, you’ve lived a certain number of years and done certain things. You have a unique set of skills and experience that you can describe and portray and own the way no one else can. Imbuing characters with your own traits and experience, in tiny doses, can help make your characters more real- and make you more confident in portraying them.

Lived through something dramatic? Why not incorporate that somewhere? Have funny quirks? Imbue them on a character who needs a little something to stand out on the page.

A character might have the same job as you, or have the same number of siblings you do, or like the same food or wear the same stuff. They might tell the same story of how someone winged an icy snowball at them once, which gave them a cut down the length of their face (happened to me!) I’m not afraid to make computer-savvy characters, because I know that lingo. I’m not afraid to make fighters either, ’cause I’m a martial artist.

Granted, different genres give you different degrees of freedom with this. A sci-fi alien isn’t supposed to have anything in common with you, puny human- but the starship crew trying to get along with that alien might.

If you need ideas to connect with or flesh out a character, it may be easiest to look inward first.

What personal traits or experiences have you bestowed upon your characters? Do you find this approach helps you relate to your characters better? Drop me a line and let me know!


You Still Need Breaks, Even When You’re Funemployed

sleeping_fox(Image credit: Photos Public Domain)

I’m an introvert who no longer works a traditional full-time job– so when my spouse goes out of town, I happily bunker in with my laptop and grind away. I added about 5-6K words to my manuscript in rewrites, drafted an article, drafted blog posts- waking up early each morning and falling asleep late each night. Friday, I picked my spouse up from the airport. With delays and weather, we didn’t get home until after midnight.

After a full week administering training, my spouse needed Saturday to recover. Grudgingly, so did I. I woke up intending to keep up the week’s grueling pace- except I majorly slept in. Coffee didn’t clear the brain-fog. My spouse sat down to play a fun new video game, and poof went the last of my work ethic.

And you know what? It’s OK.

I often assume that, because my primary work these days is something I enjoy doing, I can put nose to grindstone 7 days a week. A nice thought, but my decidedly-not-a-robot body just doesn’t allow it. After a 5-6 day push, I need a day, sometimes two, to recharge. Afterward, I have an easier time waking up in the morning and buckling down on work.

But strangely, it’s hard not to feel guilty about these break days. My work isn’t anything one would consider strenuous, after all. What am I recovering from?

The answer is creative work- which can be very draining. Besides that, I already know my brain needs more leeway than most. Still, it’s hard for me to designate a break day and not sneak in work somewhere on the side, thus ruining the whole point. I’ll just sort a little mail, write some holiday cards… oh geez, I never actually rested, did I? No wonder I’m still dragging!

When guilt conspires to separate me from my break time, I try to mitigate it by planning out what I’ll work on each day for the coming week. That helps reassure me that things will still get done, even if I spend a few hours loafing in the present. It’s important to be realistic, though, and not assign yourself more than what you can really do in one day.

You also have to admit you’re human, and allow yourself a future break at some point.

Do you have a hard time sitting still on off-days? How do you cope? Let me know in the comments!


The Ups And Downs Of The Word Count Goal

speedometer-odometer(Image credit: Photos Public Domain)

With National Novel Writing Month (aka Nanowrimo) wrapped up (heck no I didn’t participate, though it feels like I did- 29,000 new words added to my manuscript in the past couple of weeks!), it seems an apt occasion to explore what’s good and bad about the word count goal.

The Word Count Goal Is Great

On its face, it just makes sense. It’s the easiest possible way to quantify writing and measure progress. Most people are accustomed to the idea of putting in [X] hours of effort, and having something tangible to show for it afterward. For writers, words on paper are that something.

There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching a goal. The goal motivates you- heck, it forces you- to keep moving forward and adding new stuff, rather than churning over what’s already been written. This can be really helpful for a first draft, especially: plow forward, don’t look back. It’s pretty much the entire point of Nanowrimo.

Once you reach your goal, you can also safely feel like you’re done writing for the day, instead of spending the rest of the day fretting about whether you’ve really completed enough.

The Word Count Goal Sucks

There’s pressure to keep moving forward, no matter what. You may not be happy with the last scene. Too bad- full speed ahead! Thousands of more words to go!

Then later, it hits you: you know how to fix that scene! But oh, no- you’re gonna have to rewrite that, and thousands of words thereafter, because of all the changes that fix introduces.

That’s a lot of wasted effort. A little more initial planning before writing may have prevented it- but if all you care about is [X] words by the end of the day, taking time to plan and think feels like time wasted rather than time saved. There’s incentive to leave mediocre stuff the way it is, because changing it will be a hassle that won’t make much of a dent in your daily goal, and may even reduce your word count.

All of this boils down to the fact that the word count goal makes you focus on quantity over quality.

I once wrote a Java program that pulled 50,000 random words from a dictionary and wrote them to a single text file. That’s a 100% valid novel by Nanowrimo standards. Why wouldn’t it be? All Nanowrimo cares about is 50,000 words. It doesn’t matter what words they are, or whether they tell a good story or amount to haphazard garbage.

Approximately zero good novels are banged out start-to-finish in one draft, but Nanowrimo ignores that. The stated goal is to “COMPLETE a 50K word novel in one month.” It should be to “DRAFT a 50K word novel in one month.”

Verdict?

The word count goal can be very helpful for getting your initial thoughts down quickly- as long as you understand you’ll almost certainly be plowing back through and improving upon what’s there in one or more (realistically, eighty) future passes.

Once you’re out of the first-draft phase, it’s time to stop counting words and start focusing on cohesion and quality. If you really need to measure progress by something, you could always switch to scenes- like, “I want to have this scene ironed out by the end of the week.”

Are there other reasons you love or hate the word count goal? Feel free to drop a line in the comments!