December 28, 2017 / 6 Comments

A Year of Writing

            And just like that, 2017 is almost done.
            Well, okay.  Not really “just like that.”  For a lot of folks (me included), this has been a very long, stressful year.  Maybe for you, too, although I hope you managed to dodge some of it.
            It can be tough to write under these conditions.  When you feel like the world’s crumbling around you and you’re lunging to grab your favorite parts before they hit the floor… suddenly getting 1500 words written doesn’t feel like the best use of the day.  It can even make you feel worse.  Things may be collapsing, people are scared, but I’m going to go write this funny dialogue bit in a zombies on the moon story…
            Anyway… deep breath. 
            And if the deep breath doesn’t calm you, maybe a stiff drink.
            Okay.  Let’s talk about what we did get done this year.
            Why?  Well, I like laying this out because I’ve somehow stumbled into the position of being a “pro,”  and I think there’s a lot of bad information out there about what being a pro entails.  Some people think it means writing four hours a day and getting paid very well for it.  Other people think it means typing twelve hours a day, every day, and making about the same as a retail worker.  And still other people honestly think it means living in some gigantic New York penthouse apartment (and wintering in your Los Angeles one), where you barely ever write but still constantly make the NYT bestseller list and have enough free time to help solve about twenty-two murders a year.
            True fact.  I’m still living in the same apartment I lived in ten years ago when I was a terrified, starving writer.  Was driving the same car up until this March (when it finally wouldn’t pass inspection anymore).
            Anyway.  Getting off track. Too much eggnog with too much rum in it…
            As I have in the past, I wanted to go over everything I’ve written this year.  Partly for me. Partly for you.  Let’s get a sense of what a (supposed) pro does…
            I spent the first three months of the year finishing up work on Paradox Bound. As I’ve mentioned in other places, it was very tough writing a story about America and the American Dream right now.  There were many rewrites for tone and message that continued right up until the very last minute. And even then I look back at it and see things that slipped past me, things I wish I could’ve tweaked a little more.  But many of you have enjoyed it, and I’m very glad.
            During this time I was also working on a rough outline for Ex-Tension, what was going to be book six of the Ex-Heroes series.  I even started some of the heavy lifting when Paradox Bound wasn’t sitting in front of me.  But I was maybe a month or so into it when my editor, agent, and I had some talks and, well… it’s been set aside for now.  More on that later. 
            But it actually meant I could launch into Timestamp.  It’s been tickling my mind for a while now.  I wrote about 15,000 words of it and, on request, wrote out a huge exhaustive outline.  I was a little worried, because it’s one of those complex, character-heavy stories that comes across as a bit simplistic if it gets broken down past a certain point.  But after another six or seven weeks… this got set aside as well.  And, in retrospect, I’m okay with that.  My editor and I got to sit down one night at SDCC and talk about it over whiskey and apple pie, and he made some really good observations about the story (as he always does).
            Of course, at this point the year was more that half done and I hadn’t really gotten momentum on anything. Every time I started to prick up speed, my legs got kicked out from under me.  So I made the decision that I was going to write… well, a zombies on the moon story.  Something fun that I was excited about.  Because I needed to write something before the year drove me even crazier. 
            And I just finished up a first draft of that.
            Plus, my agent and I focused on a few ideas and I wrote up three other super-detailed outlines earlier this month.  Well, two “super-detailed” and one “fairly solid” outlines.  And I’m really excited about these and thinking they’re going to end up being most of next year for me.
            I also did a lot of promo stuff for Paradox Bound.  A few mini-articles, maybe a dozen written interviews.  Maybe a solid week of writing if you added all that up.
            And there was this blog. A record breaking seventy-six posts this year but… let’s be honest.  At least a dozen of those were just Tom Gauld cartoons or memes, and maybe another dozen were random promo posts for Paradox Bound or the Dead Men Can’t Complain collection.  Still, that means these were around fifty rants on one topic or another.  I think I could call this year a tie with 2009, previously the most successful year of the ranty blog.
            There were also nine or ten posts on my little geeky blog, and I came to the realization just last night that I’m probably going to end that one.  It requires a lot more of a time investment than I can give these days, between the hobby side of it and the instructional/ writing side. I love those projects, but I can’t work on them and document to the extent they deserve.  I may try to find a happy medium somewhere…
            Anyway… that’s what I got done this year. 
            How about you?
            At the end of it all, we have to keep writing.  It’s what separates us from the non-writers. And the great apes.  We keep pulling stories out of our head and scribbling them out for other people to read.  This is the only definition of being a writer—writing.  People can make any argument or excuse they like, but if I’m not doing that one basic part of the job…  well…
            Anyway, I hope the holiday season is going fantastic for all of you.  See you all next year.

            And if you get a chance… maybe write a bit.

November 19, 2015 / 1 Comment

Outlining Our Trip

            Ahhh, jeeez.  I have to bring up the Goodreads thing again. 
            At this point The Fold has somehow made it to the final round of Goodreads best sci-fi novels of 2015.  This isn’t a humblebrag, I honestly have no idea how it ended up on this list.  There are a lot of much, muchbetter books there.
            That being said, I’ve promised the marketing folks I would keep talking about it.  So if you happened to like The Fold and maybe never got around to reading any of the other, better books, maybe you could toss one last vote its way during this final round.  Just so it isn’t a total slaughter.
            Now… let’s move on.
            This week, I wanted to talk a bit about outlines.  Thing is, it’s kind of a tricky topic.  So, to explain this in simpler terms, let’s talk about road trips.  Right now, let’s you and me plan out a trip from LA to New York.  If you’re already in New York, fly out to LA, hang out for a while, and we’ll drive back. It’ll be great.
            Now, there’s a lot of ways we can do this.  We know where we’re starting, more or less (LA is a big place).  We know where we’re going (although our exact destination in New York might affect things a bit)  But there’s still a lot of flex room in how we do this.
            We can just say, “LA to New York” and start driving east.  Done.  That’s the whole plan.  We’ll figure it out as we go.  Spend a little more time here?  Maybe sleep in a few extra hours there?  Maybe go on a wild detour just to see Great Meteor Crater?
            We can get. To. New York.  I went on a road trip once and my partner-in-driving didn’t want to stop for anything.  Any.  Thing.  Petrified forest?  Roswell?  World’s biggest ball of twine?  No, nope, and no way.  We left Tuesday morning and we were going to be in New York for the weekend.  There were four points marked out on the route and that’s where we were stopping to sleep.  He didn’t see any point in wasting time because his goal was to get.  To.  New.  York.
            We can plan out the whole thing.  All of it.  I have another friend who used to be a planner in his younger days.  Crazy planner.  He would plan road trips out for his family in half hour increments.  I’m not joking.  Meals, gas stops, bathroom stops, hotels, morning showers, 90 minutes at this natural wonder, 30 at this roadside attraction, 60 at this—DAMMIT!  We spent 40 minutes at the giant tinfoil ball!  That means no afternoon bathroom break. You kids are just going to have to hold it until dinner.  And it’ll be coming out of your dessert time, I’m warning you now.
            And all this isn’t even considering us and our personal quirks.  You might be great at that sort of long-haul, ten hours behind the wheel thing, but I might only be good for four or five hours at a time.  I might have a fantastic sense of direction, but maybe you need GPS and a map at the same time.  I love all these bizarre roadside attractions with alien jerky and the continental divide and the Sunsphere, but you’d rather spend the time either driving, eating, or sleeping
            Plus, do we have time to spare on the road or do we need to be in New York  by this time next week?  Do we need to plan this out?  Is this a business trip or are we just having some fun for a couple of days?  Or weeks?
            As I said above, there’s lots of ways to do this.
            The same is true for outlines.  Maybe I don’t need one at all.  Perhaps I just need a few story points set down.  I could be the type who likes the whole thing plotted in exacting detail.  Maybe I’ve got ages to find my way or maybe I’m on a harsh deadline and don’t have time for even a single diversion.
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s hard to give advice on outlines because it’s such a personal thing.  Every writer is going to be a bit different, and the only thing that matters is that this outline works for this person.  And—like a lot of writerly advice—the only way to find out what works for you is to try it. 
            I struggled with outlines for ages before admitting they just weren’t for me.  If you haven’t used one before and your writing output is fine… hey, why fix what’s not broken?  And if you find yourself wandering and you never seem to get anywhere, maybe planning things out to some degree might help you a bit.
            This one’s all on you.
            No pressure.
            Next time… Okay, well, next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States, so I’m going to be watching Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Day The Earth Stood Still while I cook.  I hope wherever you are, it’s a good and peaceful day for you.
            The week after that, though…  I’ve been getting back into one of my hobbies lately, so I thought we could talk about painting.
            Until then, go write.
July 31, 2009 / 2 Comments

Geometry, Writing, and Astronomy

Oh, I know. Sounds like this one’s going to ramble a bit. Stick with me, honest, it’s brilliant.

No, seriously. Brilliant.
Okay, as we all learned in school, geometry tells us you need two points to define a line. A at this end, B at the other, giving us line AB. Now, as it happens, there’s no difference between AB and defining the line the other way, which would be BA. It’s the same line either way.
With me so far? Okay, just keep that image handy for a few minutes…
Now, what I really want to talk about here is plotting out your work. I think the easiest way to describe the plot of a story is to think of it like getting directions off MapQuest. It’s going to tell you exactly how to get from A to B, with all the turns, stops, and sudden twists you’re going to encounter along the way. The plot is also like those directions because you tend to get them before you actually go on your journey. Very few people run to MapQuest to check out the trip they just made, but many drivers (and writers) want the directions in hand before they start the journey.
Perhaps an even better way to put it would be this– plot is when you tell the story without actually telling the story. For example, it takes 115 minutes to tell the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark (longer if I don’t have a DVD player), but I can tell you the plot of Raiders in five or six minutes.
In screenwriting the plot is often created in an outline. If you’re not familiar with Hollywood, it’s a very
standard thing for producers to ask for an outline first. Not like the thing you learned in grade school, with I, II, C, D, 5, 6, and all that. A screenplay outline is a complete summary of the script, from the opening scene to that little tagged on bit at the end with Nick Fury swaggering out of the shadows. They can range anywhere from four to forty pages. For the movie Duplicity, writer-director Tony Gilroy told me his outline was close to sixty pages long.
Everyone with me so far? Seeing the link-ups?
Now, here’s where it gets interesting…
I was chatting online with a novelist I know, and he brought up the point that he was stuck on his new book. I suggested skipping to the next bit, and he said he couldn’t because he wouldn’t know what the next bit was until he wrote this one.
Oscar-winning screenwriters Charlie Kaufmann and Ronald Harwood both loathe plots. As they see it, how can characters have any sort of organic flow if they’re forced to stick to a rigid, pre-decided structure? Kaufman has gone so far as to say anyone who knows the ending before they start writing shouldn’t even be considered a real writer. Harwood laments the fact that once you hand in your outline to a producer that is the story. It doesn’t matter if you come up with a better character arc or a more satisfying ending– you have to turn in what you told them you’d be turning in.
On the other side of this coin is Russell Davies, the screenwriter who brought back Doctor Who from oblivion. He frequently starts at the end (for episodes and whole seasons) and works his way backwards to figure out the best path to reach that end. I’ve heard a few mystery writers take this route as well (as does Lisa Simpson’s hamster).
I find myself on the edge of this coin. Not a bad place to be, because I understand Stephen King hangs out here, too. I have ideas, and sometimes they’re of a cool way to start a story, other times they’re random scenes, and now and then it’s just a great punchline for an ending. When I started jotting down thoughts for the book that would become Ex-Heroes, the first chapter I wrote out fully was actually near the middle of the book, “The Luckiest Girl in The World.” This was followed by a bit near the start where two characters debate how strong Spider-Man was, and then most of a flashback that occurred between those two points. I had a few vague ideas where I wanted it to end (although I had no idea how), moments I wanted to see, character ideas, and so on. I think when I actively sat down to start writing it, I had maybe twenty-five pages of that sort of random stuff. And about 30% of it I never used as the story began to firm up.
Now, in the opening of his wonderful book The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke relates an apocryphal tale about Ludwig Wittgenstein–
(No, we’re still on course. Honest. )
Apparently Wittgenstein was out for a walk one day– or maybe he was at a party. It might’ve been a funeral, now that I think of it. Anyway, he definitely wasn’t at home– when he found himself in conversation with a young man who was shocked at just how ignorant and arrogant people must have been before the Renaissance to believe the Earth was the center of the universe. It was so painfully obvious to look up and see the orbits of the Earth and the Moon in relation to each other and the Sun. How could anyone possibly think the Sun revolved around the Earth?
As the story goes, Wittgenstein wryly commented, “I agree, but I wonder what things would look like if the Sun was revolving around the Earth?”
The point being, of course, it would look exactly the same.
Y’see, Timmy, in storytelling it doesn’t matter how you get from A to B. Because storytelling is about the end result– the line– not which point you started at. How the words got on the page is irrelevant. A reader isn’t going to throw your manuscript down in disgust because you started at the end, or in the middle. They don’t care if you used an outline, covered a wall with index cards or Post-Its, or just dove in on page one. They couldn’t care less if it was plotted out, improvised page by page, or written by a million monkeys with a million typewriters. The only thing the reader cares about is the finished story.
So any school of thought that says you must write this way, in this order, can’t be taken seriously. Anyone who makes a point of bringing up their method or process definitely shouldn’t be taken seriously. Every writer has to find the method that works best for them. It all comes back to the golden rule– what works for me probably won’t work for you. And it definitely won’t work for that guy.
That being said, next time I’d like to talk about my method and process.
Until then, go write. Do it any way you like, but write.