Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Power of Persistence and Distance

Scott D. Parker

Another week, another set of days just plugging away. I achieved a milestone last night: I hit 200,000 words written this year. And, considering I didn't start until May and didn't truly start until late May, I consider that achievement something to be proud of. I am. But it all goes back to prove the point I've learned this year: the simplest and most fundamental trait of writing is just to write. Start a streak, get in a groove, and just keep going. After awhile, all those words and pages just start adding up. Before you know it, you'll be done. Viola.

But you have to start. And you have to maintain. Those are key.

Once you've written something, put it away and don't look at it or think about it for a few weeks or months. This week, for the first time since I wrote "The End" back on 2 June, I started reading the first story I wrote this year. It's a little 18,000-word whatever-you-call-it (novella? novelette? long short story?). Since the second of June, I have written two short stories, completed one novel, and nearly completed a second. Plus, I've lived life.

All that is to say when I opened the file folder and started reading, the tale itself was fresh again to me. Sure, I remembered writing some of it, but not all. That freshness enabled me to experience the story more or less as a reader. I saw what I liked then (and still do now), I saw my mistakes and fixed them. I like it. It has a particular voice. Now, I'll pass it around to some beta readers and get their take on the story. Only then will I think about where it can go. Oh, and I'll have to write another two or three stories with that character, make sure he has some legs to stand on and move around. Would hate for him to be a one-and-done guy. I kinda like him.

How much time do y'all usually spend putting distance between "The End" of a story and when you start reading it again for the purposes of rewriting?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Author Time is a real and weird thing

By Steve Weddle

And speaking of time shifting, my chat with Alec Cizak airs today at KMSU at 10:30 am Central Time.

Why is it Eastern and Central and Pacific? Does anyone say Eastern and Western? Atlantic and Pacific? And what's what Mountain Time Zone? It's like that woman in the corporate meeting who has three things to tell you -- "First, I'd like to start with" and then launches into "and B, we need to" and ends with "and finally."

"The history of time in the United States began in 1883."

So one of the weird things being an "Author" and not a writer, aside from never again having to pay for books, alcohol, or housing, is knowing things you can't share.
When you sell your book rights to the French or the Venetians or the Czechs, you've got a lag time of when you can make that announcement. Your agent will call or email and tell you about it. You'll up it or down it. Then the deal will get nailed down. But you can't say anything until X happens -- papers get signed, proposals accepted, clauses struck, etc. So you're sitting on news you can't announce.

As a reader, I never noticed the lag or, to be honest, really gave two poops about it. But as an author, well, you want to post it up there for folks. You want to let people share the news with you. "Hey, people who are traveling with me on this journey, look at this cool building over there." Only, you're the only one who can see it right now. In a few weeks, you'll be allowed to point it out. "Pleased to announce we've sold Aleutian rights to CYBORG LESBIAN VAMPIRE ASSASSINS."

Or you'll get a nice review you can't share until the magazine is printed in a few weeks. Or you just talked to Marc Edwards at Dark Tiddlings Studios about a movie adaptation of your book to appear, possibly maybe, on the Ovation channel in 2016. Or a thousand other things.

As an author, you get excited and you want to share it with your friends and neighbors (Twitter, GeoCities, LiveJournal, Facebook), but you can't. Instead, you make vague references that might lead people to think you're either phony or a butthead. Or both.

It's weird.

And then you go out on book tours to talk about your "new" book that is out, a book you started writing seven years ago and finished two years back. And people ask you questions about characters you've forgotten. Or plot points.

Because you're writing the third book in the series and only the first one is out. And, in your mind, that waiter the interviewer is asking about died six months ago. Which, um, you know, you probably shouldn't mention.

Add to it that you're probably writing about a universe that doesn't exist in real time -- either it's an alternate now or it's 1863 Nebraska -- WHEN THEY DIDN'T EVEN HAVE STANDARD TIME.

But, you know, we already have Eastern and Pacific and Mountain time zones. Just add in Author Time.

Because the train for "Standard Time" has left the station. Or, you know, it's about to leave five minutes ago.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Guest post - Michael J Malone

One of the unforeseen challenges of being a fairly new published writer is getting used to talking about a book I wrote some time ago, while my mind is tracking through the events in a new piece of work.

I finished A Taste for Malice around three years ago, so jogging the old memory cells (and I mean OLD) was not so easy.

It was only after I had finished my first published novel, Blood Tears that I realised I had written a crime novel, so for my next book – I was unpublished at the time and writing for myself rather than a commission – I didn’t have much thought to genre. I just started writing.

The idea came to me as I was driving. At a roundabout on the A78 in Ayrshire, I witnessed a near collision. A family car, driven by a young woman took evasive action and drove away safely, but started off a chain of “what ifs” in my head.

What if the crash had happened?

Then I filled in the young woman’s backstory. As you do. She was recently separated. One child: a four-year old boy. What if she sustained head injuries? Lost her memory? The estranged husband moves back into the marital home to take care of their son while she is in a coma and once she recovers and gets out of hospital – what if he pretends they had never split up? He has to then get her to fall back in love with him before her memory recovers.

Subsequent research into the far-reaching effects of memory loss made me realise that life wouldn’t necessarily be that easy for the errant husband. He’s a carer to his wife, father to his son and he has a full-time job: he needs help. His parents are too old. Hers are dead. What if a strange woman presents herself as a friend to his wife? There were a few months between the separation and the accident. She could be a friend, but the doubts are there. However, he can’t voice them because his wife is too unstable. And if he does, what might “the friend”  say about him?

Slowly, trust builds between the husband and the friend ... before it all goes horribly wrong.

80,000 words into this and I wasn’t feeling it. My gut told me the basic story was strong, but that it was missing something. And that something was McBain, my detective from Blood Tears.

I brought him back from the professional dog house and put him on the (cold) case of a couple of families who had allowed a young woman in to their home to help out with the kids. Only for her to abuse their trust in horrible ways. McBain reads between the lines and sees that the violence is escalating. He needs to find this women before a child dies.

Blood Tears, had a reasonable body count and a fair splashing of the red stuff so I was keen that the follow-up  would be less so, and more of a psychological thriller. (Although, to be fair, Blood Tears had a strong element of that as well.) I wanted to achieve that tension while trimming down on the violence.  

Was I crazy?

In fact, at the time I was writing the book I came across an interview where one famous and successful author said that you couldn’t have a crime novel these days without there being a dead body in it. Foolishly, (or not) I took that as a challenge.

The threat of violence became the thing. (And I realised I was writing a crime novel again.)

You’ll just have to read the book to find out if I managed to keep the body count down.

- Michael J. Malone

Thanks to Michael for dropping by Do Some Damage. He's also been kind enough to stump up a gorgeous hardcopy of A Taste for Malice for the first reader to correctly guess which crime writing greats inspired the name of DI Ray McBain. Answer in the comments section please.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

It's Supposed to be Fun

This week I'm getting ready to drive to Albany for Bouchercon. This will be my fourth convention and I've finally realized that the point is to have fun.

The first time I went to a Bouchercon was in Madison, Wisconsin a few months before my first crime novel was published and I thought I was going there to make connections. I thought I was going to meet people who might review the book or order it for bookstores or somehow help me. Professionally.

It was only after I got to the convention that I realized it's a vacation with hundreds of people who share many of my interests.

Oh sure, there are many really good panels where I learned (and continue to learn) a lot but also where I am entertained. It's fun.

And speaking of fun (which I think is important), here's a picture of my new computer:

It's a Pioneer stereo receiver from 1973 (which I only dreamed about owning in the 70s).

I haven't had a new computer in over a decade and now that I have a tablet I figured I didn't need the portability of a laptop so I could get a desktop. But what kind? So I asked my most techie friend, Alison, what kind of desktop I should buy and she said, "The one I build for you."

And then she started talking about all the stuff* that goes inside and my eyes glazed over and I started thinking about the Buffalo Bills and if they made yet another mistake at head coach. Then Alison said, "What kind of fun case do you want?" Computer cases aren't fun, they're just functional. Or so I thought. It turns out this is just another example of how out of touch with the world I am.

For herself, Alison built a steampunk computer, which is fun, yes, but not really me.

But this one, which Alison named "Funk," is more like me. Maybe a more fun version of me.

So now it's back to packing. I'm on a panel Saturday morning moderated by the fantastic Barbara Fister (which is intimidating) and I'm also the panel-room assistant for three panels on Friday so if you see me, please say hi.

And if you're interested n a cool, custom-made computer let me know and I'll give you Alison's contact info. She can build it into pretty much any kind of fun case you like. I considered an antique lunchpail, a small suitcase that looked like Hemingway might have lugged around Europe and even a Commodore 64 case (the first computer I owned). Goodwill stores have some terrific stuff.

As long as it's fun.

* stuff is a technical term I don't really understand. It seems there are words and numbers and letters all strung together that apparently mean something to some people.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Writing Pearls in Mud

 Last night, I watched what is arguably the best film of the year, and undoubtedly one of the best films I've seen in several years.

 Ask Brian, and he'll tell you how picky I am about movies, so this isn't faint praise. I've had a tendency to refer writers to elements of TV shows for examples of different writing techniques, or to learn about character development, back story or plot execution. Now, I'll be referring them to Mud.

 Here are some quick things you can learn about from watching Mud:

 1. The action of the story can originate in character. In reality, it should feel like the characters are acting naturally. Too often, I read works where it feels as though the characters are being forced to do something they wouldn't really do, in order to serve the plot, because the plot isn't evolving organically to encompass the actions of the characters. This story starts because two boys are curious. And willing to break the rules. Everything that follows feels organic, because the story follows the responses of the characters to the events unfolding.

 2. Natural curiosity should be exploited. There isn't anything unbelievable about the idea of two boys breaking a few rules to check up on a rumor about a boat in a tree. The movie flows from there, but that natural curiosity that fits with their ages contributes to other events throughout the movie, and without utilizing that natural developmental component of characters their age, the movie wouldn't have had the same outcome. When it comes to relationships, it would feel unnatural if the boys weren't curious. The writer has used natural curiosity to add motivation for the characters.

 3. The setting should compliment the story. The story of Mud couldn't happen just anywhere, and because the setting works to support the story, it's almost a character in the story. Some stories aren't location-bound, but this one is, and this is an excellent example of how the setting contributes to the evolution of the story.

 4. Characters need motivation. They need a believable reason to do what they do. I don't mean 'believable' in terms of factually accurate. We need to believe the actions and reactions of the character fit the character.

 5. Character arcs should impact the outcome of the story. When the arcs of the characters intersect effectively, the actions of one character can prompt reactions from the other characters that will advance the plot.

 6. There are usually more characters in your story than just your protagonists. When those characters are on the screen or on the page, they should be interacting in such a way that reveals character, provides obstacles to achieving the desired outcome of the story, or providing information that helps resolve issues within the story.

 7. It takes a punch in the nose to grab the audience and it takes an occasional slap on the face to keep it. This doesn't necessarily mean big action. In the case of Mud, the audience is quickly asking themselves questions. Where are they going? Why are they going there? As those questions are answered, they begin to ask more questions. How did the boat get in the tree? Then, more importantly, another question arises. Who's living in the boat? More questions follow. Why is he living in the boat? Who is he? Is he telling the truth?

 8. Coincidence can be believable, given the right variables. In this case, it's a small, closed environment, and given the nature of the local area, the idea that most people know each other is believable. Do your job, and the connections won't feel far-fetched, but earned.

 9. If you establish the history of a character, you can connect it to your ending. I wouldn't want to spoil anything. Watch Mud. See how even a minor character like Galen fits neatly into the narrative, contributing to the revelations in the end of the movie.

 10. If you know your characters and your plot, you know when to change POV. Very little of this story is told from Mud's POV, but that contributes to the sense of doubt, curiosity and mystery surrounding him. We're given just what we need to satisfy, when needed, and the scenes pack an extra punch because of it.

Brian tells me there's Oscar buzz around this movie already. I don't really know anything about that, but I think it would be tragic if it didn't earn a nod for the writing.  There's so much more I haven't even touched on; the use of subtext, opposing character arcs, etc.  Mud is a movie that's packed full of writing pearls, just waiting for you.

It feels odd to even try to reduce this movie into advice. The best advice I can give you is to watch it. Then watch it again, and look at the mechanics of the story development and the character arcs. I would be inclined to say that any writing student of mine who hasn't got a few hours to watch this movie and analyze the structure of the story and character arcs isn't serious about learning the fundamentals of craft, regardless of genre.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Make it worse

by: Joelle Charbonneau

If you ever read tweets or Facebook posts by writers you will often see the phrase “I have no idea what comes next.  Maybe I should kill someone.”  Or something similar.  If you follow me on social media, I know for a fact you’ve seen many variations on that theme.  Not that I actually bump off that many characters.  (Well…at least not in my adult mysteries.  In my young adult stuff—well, the body count does tend to rise more than might be expected by the term young adult.  But that’s another story….)  When I post that kind of comment, I don’t always kill someone.  However, I do exactly what that kind of sentiment implies.  I make it worse.

What’s “it”?  It is the story.  The character’s personal conflict.  The motivation of other characters.  The emotional investment of the main character. 

When in doubt make “it” worse. 

Story is about conflict.  No one wants to read about someone getting up in the morning, making coffee (although if you have some extra I’d take a mug about now), going to work, eating dinner, going to bed and doing it all over again tomorrow.  Fiction is about story ideas that are bigger than every day life.  It is about conflict that keeps us turning the pages. 

So, when in doubt as to what comes next, you need to up the stakes.  You make “it” worse.

This week, I had to remind myself of this rule.  I’m writing something new.  Brand new.  Nothing like anything I’ve written before.  It requires huge amounts of world building and tons of research and a plot that is filled with ideas that fascinate me.  But something wasn’t working in the book.  All the ideas were there.  The world building was there.  But something wasn’t quite resonating no matter how many tweaks I did as to the order of events or the layers of world building and motivation.

That’s when I realized.  I wasn’t making it worse.  So, that’s what I’m doing.  I’m upping the stakes.  I’m making it worse for the main character who becomes more and more real with every tweak I make. 

Will the book be any good?  Got me.  Will a publisher want to buy it?  Here’s hoping.  I guess I need to finish making “it” worse to find out.