Category Archives: Writing

I’ve Finished 2 Novels. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

With the release of Harbingers, the story I began working on in 2009 with the hazy goal of finishing a single novel has now materialized into 2 published books. Hooray!

But something looks a little off there. 8 years to finish 2 books? Lots of authors publish novels on a yearly basis.

I’ll tell you right now: I’m not “lots of authors.” I haven’t distilled novel-writing down to a crank-’em-out science. But, I also don’t think it’ll take 4 years to outline, draft, and finish Sword and Starship Book 3. Here are some factors that should aid my turnaround time.

1. I’m more disciplined about writing now. This is the big one. From 2009 to 2014, I was only writing once a week or less, flying by the seat of my pants with no outline. Quitting my day-job allowed me to make writing my full-time focus. Once I got connected with an editor who could guide me in the ways of book-planning, things really started falling into place.

All planning and good intentions aside, the book only gets written if I sit down to write it. I’m blessed to be able to do that every single day. (Though I do take breaks on weekends. Breaks are necessary.)

2. I’m more informed about the novel-writing process. Novels are a LOT more complicated than short stories, which I was more accustomed to prior to starting this project. My first draft of Blood’s Force (which was later expanded into Blood’s Force and Harbingers) was only about 80K words, and performed a breakneck speed-run through the plot without pausing to build up suspense, relationships, or other really important stuff.

A ton of prep work has to happen before any writing starts: figuring out character goals, constructing an outline, mapping character arcs and relationships. They won’t be set in stone—while drafting, surprises always happen that force you to change course—but working in the mid-draft revelation is much better than petering out after 80 pages because you have no idea what happens next.

3. I know to finish the first draft before doing any editing. Long before a first draft of Blood’s Force was done, I was taking chapters to critique groups, obsessing over word choices, etc. This is a HUGE waste of time. Surprises happen constantly while you’re drafting. You don’t want to know how many really polished scenes I ended up cutting as my outline changed, and how much I was tempted not to cut only because I’d spent so much time on it. This time around, I know not to start rewriting or soliciting critique in earnest until I have a complete story done.

4. I’m letting myself be OK with imperfection. This is hard, because it goes against the grain of my upbringing. “Make all As!” “Always give 110%!” The demands of perfectionism are like a harsh spotlight blaring over everything I do. When writing, I pause constantly in search of the right word or turn of phrase. A voice in my skull tells me I need to be funnier, more clever, more profound. Get it right, or else!

Then a whole morning passes, and I only have three sentences written.

It helps to remember that the writing process isn’t a one-time orchestral performance in front of a huge audience. It’s more like sculpting alone in a studio. I can start rough where no one will see, then chisel out something more beautiful while editing.

Eventually, though, I have to stop chiseling and release my work into the world as-is. There are always parts I think are still unacceptably weak, but they’re probably not as bad as I fear.

5. I’ve learned to prize clarity and simplicity. As a younger writer, I wanted my prose to be profound and complex and thought-provoking. Now, I just want to communicate clearly, which should make drafting easier. I don’t need the fancy $10 thesaurus word when the first word off the top of my head will do—especially in a first-person narrative where the main character is talking informally to her audience.

6. I know how to leverage the strengths of my reviewers. I’ve learned my husband is great for taking a pitch and improving it. “Why don’t you do X instead?” where X is something so much cooler than what I thought of. What he’s not so good at is at challenging me on the weak points in my writing—pointing out awkward phrases, noting where I could include more emotion and reflection, etc. My editor is much better at this. So I’ll keep these things in mind when seeking critique.

All that said, I’m now outlining what I’d like to have happen in future Sword and Starship books! Wish me luck! :)

Blow Off Some Steam With Side-Writing

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For most of the time I was drafting Blood’s Force, I was solely focused on that project. All of my brainstorming and creative energy were attuned to where that story was going next, and how it was going to get there.

An impressive feat of focus and discipline, but after a while, all that squinting in one direction strained my creative vision. It took me a while to realize the value of increased sanity breaks away from writing – usually for reading, drawing, and video games. (Oh, and fireflies.)

But then I gradually sneaked writing into my off-time as well – writing that had nothing to do with my main project. My husband and I play a story-building game together, similar to a forum RPG. We keep shared files on Google Docs. He’ll write out his character’s actions, I’ll append my character’s actions, then it’s his turn again. There’s no obligation at all. It’s just fun.

It’s amazing how fast that writing pours out of my head. On my “serious” projects, 1000 new words is a really good day. With my playtime writing, I can churn out 1000 words in the space of an hour or two. I don’t have to think about it, it just happens. The voice that’s normally third-guessing each word goes on vacation. I get a lot of opportunity to flex my creativity muscles, working with a different set of characters, constraints, and problems to solve.

It seems like energy wasted. All that effort for prose that only two people will ever see? But seriously, it’s a really good break from my main project, especially when I’m stuck on something there and need time away from it. The shift to a different genre and set of characters lets my brain go places it wouldn’t normally go if it had to remain in the “main” thought-space. That divergent thinking really helps refresh me upon returning to the main project.

The other benefit to side projects is that they often help me get going on days when I feel like I can’t get anything done. I have the aforementioned story-writing with my husband; I also have this very blog, and articles for The Daily WTF. If I’m feeling too brain-dead to launch straight into my main project, I’ll take 30-60 minutes to draft a blog post or article. One crappy sentence becomes two, then three… who cares, right? It’s drafting. By the time I’m done, I feel a sense of accomplishment, and greater confidence that I’ll achieve something constructive on my main project.

It seems silly to ask someone experiencing writer’s block, “Have you tried writing?” But seriously, taking a break to work on something else might be a great way to power through it.


Travel Logs: The Handy Reference You May Be Overlooking

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When I go on vacation, I have a rule of spending as little time on the computer as possible. This was especially true when I had a regular full-time job, but I don’t see things changing as a freelancer.  I paid good money to put myself in a different place for a while, to experience that place – so I might as well experience it. There will be ample email- and social media-fooling-around time when I get home.

I make two tiny exceptions. One: communication from my pet-sitters (I have two cats, and I’m never doing OK unless I know they’re doing OK). Two: at the end of each day, I spend 5-10 minutes chronicling the day’s events: where we went, what was good and bad, how it all looked and felt, what I learned about this new place and the people there.

I find this a really valuable practice for several reasons:

  • In case I decide to base a story, scene, or character off this information later. I can draw upon and leverage my authentic experiences. Living it yourself is seriously the best method of research possible!
  • It’s good writing practice when I’m away from my usual projects. I think it’s helpful to step away and write things that aren’t your main project from time to time. It helps you blow off steam, and lets your brain go in directions it won’t normally because it’s stuck in some particular genre, with a particular set of characters and circumstances.
  • To encourage myself to do and see more. I’m an introvert who needs regular kicks to the butt to get out and do things. I want to have lots to write down later!
  • If I decide to revisit this place someday, it’s a reference guide of lessons learned. Restaurants to revisit, for instance – or the valuable knowledge that you need at least 2 hours to get through US customs!
  • To relive an awesome trip as often as I like. The trips I’ve logged this way, I remember much better than the ones I didn’t. This makes it easy to recall sights/sounds/smells/quotes/etc. that might’ve slipped through the cracks otherwise. A few words in, and suddenly I’m re-enjoying that mocha in the museum cafe.

My journaling is really nothing special – just a rich text file – but I put as much of my own personality and humor into the descriptions as I can, and soon the thing has a life of its own. It’s not something I intend to share, but it easily could be a blog post or essay if I spruced it up.

If you haven’t logged your own travel this way, give it a shot and see what happens!


“Start As Close To The End As Possible”

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Scattered across the Internet, you’ll find a set of “fiction” or “short story” rules (depending on the source) attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers. My own judgment is that they’re more useful for short fiction than long, because they’re mostly geared toward getting to the point and not wasting the reader’s time. Of course that’s important in any fiction, but for a short story, it’s crucial.

I happen to be plunking at a couple of short stories at the moment as I await feedback on the latest draft of Blood’s Force. Of Vonnegut’s 8 rules, number 5 helped me out a lot this week:

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

I intend for one of the short stories to be a prequel of Blood’s Force– but for the past few years, I’ve been in long-fiction mode. So as I outlined this thing, I made plenty of room in the front for a slow buildup, establishing world and character. I still had no good idea of a starting place or line, but figured that’d work itself as I drafted.

And then I sat down to draft… and I didn’t want to. I was dreading it.

Uh-oh, that was my spider-sense tingling! That meant something was wrong with my approach. But what? What could I change to make myself more interested in this thing?

It took a day or two of thought. Maybe if I have a really creative opening? OK, but what? I’m stuck there now. Hang on, is there any scene in this outline I do want to write? Otherwise, I should just scrap the darn thing and start over.

It turned out, yes, there was this scene near the middle that intrigued me.

Then, right before bed one night, it hit me: START THERE. Like Kurt said. Ditch the slow build and start one scene shy of the climax. Weave in establishing details as the action happens. Give a taste of the world, don’t try to explain it. That’s what the books are for.

This approach struck me as more intriguing, and more challenging. I’ll be trying it out and seeing what happens!

Just a quick example of my thought process when I get stuck. I hope it might help someone else. :)


Writing Realistic Fight Scenes: Advice From A Martial Artist

kriegIf you’re looking to add realism to a fight sequence, talk to someone who’s been in a few fights.

Hey- that’s me!

Okay, quick disclaimer: I don’t like fighting. I’m not good at it. But it’s something I’ve had to practice in my martial arts career, for good reason. For one thing, I know I won’t get totally wailed on in a real fight (because I’ve been in a real fight, and I wasn’t wailed on). For another, it teaches you the most important lesson: the desire to avoid fights altogether.

I’m the last person to tell you that I’m some kind of super badass. My modest credentials are as follows:

  • Second-degree brown belt in Kenpo, Jun Fan, Muay Thai, and Eskrima.
  • About five years’ experience with freestyle sparring, grappling, and kickboxing.
  • About the same amount of time playing with Kali sticks, machete, and bo staff. A wee bit of experience with sai and German longsword.
  • Experience with squaring off against all different kinds of people. Men and women, anywhere from my height/weight (5’5″ / 115 lbs) to a foot taller and two hundred pounds heavier.

That’s enough for me to tell you the following about what a fight is like:

Real fights are short.
Think- really think- about two people running at each other with razor-sharp weapons and the intent to kill. Do you believe they’d actually spend twenty minutes tirelessly exchanging blows in a beautiful, deadly ballet?

Hell no.

Want to know what a real sword-fight looks like? You can find plenty of examples on YouTube, but here’s the gist: two opponents will either charge right up to each other, or square up and test each other out until someone sees an opening. Once they close, they may exchange a few blows before (a) one or both go down with lethal wounds, or (b) one or both lose their weapons and switch to a grapple/melee.

A fist-fight typically doesn’t last long, either. Action movie heroes can shake off 37 punches and keep going, but you and I can potentially be killed by ONE lucky shot.

If a fight does run long, you’ll find yourself expending a lot of effort to whack the other person and dodge their hits. It wears you out. You’ll have trouble holding your arms up. You’ll gasp for air. You’ll get sloppy with form and defense- and that’s often when you or your opponent will make a terrible mistake.

Real fights are ugly.
A real fight is about survival, not about showing off fancy choreographed moves. With stakes and emotions running high, all one’s discipline and training may go right out the window- assuming one had any to begin with. Sometimes your single emotion is DIE. Sometimes it’s Please, deity of choice, let this end.

In a real fight, everything’s fair game. Hair-pulling, fingernail-raking, nut-shots- whatever gets the job done fastest.

Keeping your guard up is super important.
Especially if you’re a tiny little wisp like me. It’s way too easy for a bigger opponent to bop a smaller one in the head- if you leave your guard down. When you put up your dukes, they shouldn’t hover at chin or chest level. At least one fist should be held high to block head-shots (I tend to keep my lead fist above the crown of my head, and my rear fist around ear-height). When using a weapon, it should also be poised to protect your head as often as possible.

Again, it gets hard to do this as a fight drags on, and the muscles in your arms complain about holding your fists/weapons up that high. It’s something you have to train yourself not to be lax about.

Even if you “win,” you’ll probably get hurt.
Throwing punches hurts your knuckles- if you throw them properly. Hold your hand wrong, or hit with the wrong part of your hand, and you will break something. It’s also stupidly easy to break fingers in a sword-fight. A deflected blade can bounce onto your fingers, or someone might punish you for forgetting to tuck your thumbs in. After all, what’s the easiest way to disarm your opponent? Smack the shit out of their hands.

Head injuries are very common and insidious as well. Movies and books tend to make light of them. The truth is, if someone falls unconscious for any length of time after a head injury, they’ve sustained a serious concussion and may have issues later with memory, vomiting, and a slew of other things. Head gear should be worn whenever possible, and head injuries checked out by a doctor after the fact.

The best way to win is not to fight at all.
Someone who talks a lot of shit probably hasn’t seen much of it. Most people with actual fighting experience won’t want to pad that resume- they’ll run if given the chance.

My karate school always advocated fighting as one’s last resort. As the saying goes, “What’s the best block? A city block!” (As in, a city block’s distance between you and your opponent.)

 

Hopefully this helps! If you have any questions or comments, let me know!


The Subtle Art Of Tells

chatter_teethWe hear it all the time: show, don’t tell. And most of the time, that’s solid advice. But there are occasions where a tell is necessary, or just a better idea: for the sake of brevity, backstory, worldbuilding, your series theme song, that sort of thing.

The way to do tells is to weave them in as seamlessly and naturally as possible. They should be ninja, dropping information into your readers’ minds without anyone being the wiser.

Why? Because an obvious tell can feel forced, pedantic, and fake. A really bad one hits the brakes on the whole story, throwing the reader clear.

So, what are some ways of doing tells well?

  • Keep them brief and rare. Paragraphs and chapters full of tell are really bad. If you have a lot of worldbuilding to do, spread it out in dribs and drabs. Let those details pop up when it makes sense for them to do so.
  • Don’t hit the brakes on your narration in order to tell. Sometimes this is done as part of an intro– or a character may go to a library, and we’re privy to every single word he reads while there. This usually sucks, because it leaves the story hanging. Breaks like these are why I’ll never read Solaris again, even though I really liked the premise.
  • Do your best to integrate the tell into the story. An example: in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker and others rebel pilots are briefed on the plan to blow up the Death Star. There’s a lot of “tell” there about the Death Star design that would’ve been way too hard to show with the visual effects of the time. This tell also advances the story, rather than calling timeout on it.
  • Be careful with tell done through dialogue. A good rule of thumb is to avoid dialogue that begins with “You know.” “You know, Bob, your sister’s an accomplished scientist in her own right.” If the other character already knows, then there’s no reason for the speaker to say it, except to provide backstory to the reader. It feels phony. Never have characters explain things to each other that they should already know!
  • Leave a little mystery if so inclined. The tell doesn’t have to be all-inclusive. If your tell raises more questions than it answers, then readers will want to keep reading for those answers. Just be sure to provide answers eventually, in a satisfying manner!

What are your favorite tricks for tells? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!


How To Get Past The Guilt Of “Working Enough”

constructionArguably, the most important thing to get right about writing is actually sitting down and doing it. I’ve commented before on where to find time, and how to build up the discipline to use that time well when it arrives.

Know what’s just as important, but isn’t mentioned nearly as often? You need a damn break once in a while. You need to get away and think about anything but writing. Let ideas meld and play around in your subconscious, without you worrying about them. When you allow this to happen, it often helps you come up with better ideas and get around blocks.

When you have a full-time job or other regular responsibilities (ex. school, parenting), you probably don’t have any trouble getting away from writing. What if it’s your full-time job, though? Now you may have some trouble figuring it out. At what point have you written “enough” for one day? Should your break be strictly scheduled, or on an as-needed basis?

When you have a strong work ethic, it can also be tough to take your break and not feel like you should be writing the whole time. Then you stew over writing the parts you’re worried about, which isn’t the point at all. The point is to get away completely for a while, not to heap guilt upon yourself!

I’ve talked about allowing break time before, but not so much about making it mandatory– and that’s really where a full-time writer should be going. You need time away to be a full person. If you have trouble granting it to yourself without feeling guilty, like I do, you may want to consider the strategy I’m about to lay out here…

We each have periods of the day when we feel “on,” ready to tackle anything. For me, that period is from 8:00 AM – 12:00 PM- provided I get my coffee. During this time of day, I think clearest and act swiftest. It totally makes sense for me to devote it to writing- with breaks every hour or so to get up, stretch, mess around on the Internet.

Since that’s my best time of day, if I manage to write for that whole period, I can consider myself DONE. Job complete. No guilt. If I want to do more, and manage to write during other times of the day, great! That’s BONUS.

We also have times of day when we’re at our worst, energy-wise. For me, that’s usually between 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM, and after sundown (which varies throughout the year). It makes sense to break during those hours, guilt-free.

We all have these natural highs and lows. If you’re lucky enough to be able to devote your best hours to writing, go for it! Then cut yourself loose after a job well done.


Create Tension With Obstacles

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What is tension, exactly?

Tension is the heightening of stakes in some way. I like to think of it as a dangling carrot in front of the protagonist. You never want to give them the carrot right away. They should reach, and strain, and work- even suffer- for it. Meanwhile, the audience watches with bated breath, and ideally roots for the protagonist to triumph.

Obstacles must stand between the protagonist and what they want. If there are no obstacles, it’s hard for the audience to care as much. We want to see how the hero earns victory in the face of adversity. We don’t really give a crap if victory’s guaranteed.

How many sports movies start with a really awesome team that wins the big championship? Not many! We’re usually watching bad or off-the-radar teams who have to band together and rise above adversity to become unlikely champions.

Prefer a nerdier example? There was an episode of Star Trek: TNG once where Data steps into the holodeck to play Sherlock Holmes, and immediately solves the entire mystery as soon as the game gets started. That’s what happens with zero tension.

How do I add tension?

If a scene/story feels flat or boring, it may be due to a lack of tension. The protagonist(s) might be having too easy a time getting what they want. Throwing in more tension might spice things up and make the protagonist’s victory feel earned. Again, tension = obstacles. Roadblocks, potholes, holding back the carrot. Here are some suggestions for injecting tension:

Mystery. Have the protagonist come upon places, people, and things he doesn’t understand right away. These are questions he can work to answer over the course of the narrative. When your audience is asking questions, that’s a good thing. They’ll stay tuned because they want the answers.

Disagreeing allies. It gets boring when a group of allies nod along together. If there’s too much agreement between characters, step back and think closer about what each of them really wants and values most. There may be more disagreement between them than you realize. Have these disagreements surface, and make the characters work through them. A common example is the rogue cop busting heads with his strait-laced police chief, but even two close friends can have different opinions on things.

Environmental obstacles. Maybe the power’s out, or a train’s pounding down the tracks, or poison gas has leaked into the room. Something physically threatens the protagonist and must be overcome with skill, pluck, teamwork, you name it.

Villains to fight- realistically. These would be fights the where protagonist has to struggle, and/or enlist the help of other characters, to win. It’s boring and unrealistic when a protagonist fights hundreds of minions without ever breaking a sweat or taking a hit.

Real fights are usually short, ugly, and brutal. The punches that action movie heroes so often shake off can actually be fatal if delivered properly. Yes, one measly punch can do serious damage. Also, even a really skilled fighter is gonna have a bad day or make a mistake. Make your heroes more vulnerable, and thus relatable. Fatigue and injury can also work as further obstacles to their goals. Think of John McClane’s bare feet in Die Hard.

Critical misses. The term comes from Dungeons and Dragons, and refers to when a player rolls a 1 when attempting an attack or some other action. Rolling a 1 means the character not only fails the attempt, but also has the chance to do damage to themselves or those around them. Basically, they fail big.

Maybe something that should be easy for the protagonist blows up on him. In the horror genre, you’ve got the cliches of cars that won’t start and characters who trip while running away from the killer. Critical misses have to be used sparingly, unless you want to end up with slapstick or farce. However, when used creatively, they can be interesting.

Multiple and/or false leads. It’s often boring if every bit of dialogue and evidence points to Nasty McFoul as the sole antagonist. What about evidence that points to multiple characters, each with their own convincing motives? What if Nasty does good things too, forcing the protagonist to question his reputation? Now instead of racing to an obvious goal, the protagonist has to puzzle things out, making the conclusion he comes to more satisfying.

So what?

Tension is what makes a regular story into a page-turner. “How’re they getting out of this one?” “I have to see what happens next!”

Once established, tension must be carefully handled. You don’t want to let it dissipate too quickly, or beat it into the ground. Study your favorite books and movies to identify elements of tension and how they’re handled- then make sure you get lots of practice writing your own!

Any other advice for injecting tension into a humdrum situation? Drop me a line in the comments!


The Ups And Downs Of Deadlines

february-calendarI mentioned word count goals a while back, the advantages and disadvantages of working with them. Now I’ll do the same with another go-to progress and motivation method: deadlines.

Deadlines Are Great

Deadlines can help you break down a huge, impossible-seeming goal- like novel-writing- into manageable chunks, and provide a timeframe for getting it done. They also give you that kick in the rear you need to stop procrastinating and start writing.

We tend to prioritize tasks with due dates and deadlines over tasks that can be done “whenever.” Deadlines are a commitment toward taking your writing seriously.

It’s surprising what you get done while holding yourself accountable to a deadline, versus writing when you feel like it, without any time limit at all.

Deadlines can also help you move past sections where you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. Maybe you just can’t get a scene right, or you’re obsessing over details. No worries! Move on and come back to it later, when you’ll have a fresh outlook that will hopefully help you get un-stuck.

Deadlines Suck

Poorly wielded, deadlines can suck all the fun out of writing. What was once your happy leisure activity may as well be a chore or work project. High achievers may find themselves stressing out over these deadlines as much as any other deadlines they face.

Like the word count goal, there’s also the temptation to sacrifice quality. It’s easier, and “looks” better, to leave bad scenes as they are, rather than fix them and potentially miss the deadline.

The importance attached to writing deadlines may make you neglect other hobbies or chores that need to be done, in service of meeting the deadline.

How To Use A Deadline

In the right hands, with the right mindset, a deadline can be really useful- but first, it’s crucial to figure out:

  • What a realistic deadline is for you. How much can you get done in the given time frame, without ignoring all the other things you need to do to maintain a healthy existence? For instance, during rewrites, I try to finish two chapters per week. That said, don’t worry about what I or other people use for deadlines. Go at your own pace, then challenge yourself to increase it later if you want.
  • What you’ll do when you miss a deadline, because it WILL happen. This week’s chapters are huge, you’re not feeling well, life throws surprises at you… whatever the reason, it’s generally best to forgive yourself, set a new deadline, and move on. Stressing out or beating yourself up is not recommended.
  • Whether you have a hard date that the entire project must be finished by. I’d recommend not setting one, so you have even less reason to worry if your schedule slips.

Do you use deadlines? How do you make them work for you? Let me know in the comments!


Create What YOU Love

red-crayon-heartI learned something neat this week about the song Mother, by Danzig. If you don’t remember it, take a moment to refresh yourself:

When Glenn Danzig released this song in 1988, it didn’t get much attention. It wasn’t until 6 years later that the song became a hit. In a 1994 interview, Danzig had this to say regarding Mother:

It was the song I always wanted to write. … But I never wrote that song to make it a hit – I never wrote that way, and I still don’t. I write songs so that they say something and do something, and if people like ’em, great – and if they don’t, they don’t.

I really like his attitude, and I think it’s a great one for creative people of all stripes (writers, artists, musicians, etc.) to emulate. Trying to make other people happy and chase what’s popular isn’t the way to go. Do what YOU want, whatever it is, without worrying about who’ll like it or buy it.

99.99% of the creative experience is your own sweat and blood: first bringing your idea to life, then painstakingly chipping away at it until you can’t refine it any further. You might as well enjoy what you’re making. Whenever you phone it in, people can tell.

I’ve known people who were more interested in money first, creating second. They were pretty crappy at what they did, and were big-time discouraged when the money didn’t roll in right away. Money and fame should be happy side effects (if they happen), not the be-all end-all.

Besides, you never know which way popular tastes will swing. Mother came out when glam-rock was big, so no one cared. A few years later, with heavy/thrash/death metal going more mainstream, people got into it. Danzig wasn’t looking for fame, but it found him because he’d stayed true to himself.

So make what you love, share it fearlessly, repeat. Enjoy the process. And good luck finding the fans you deserve!