Ready? Set? Wait for it…

nano

If you’re reading this two and a half days from now, feel free to yell “GO” whenever the clock strikes twelve in your particular time zone.

Yes, we’re only a few short hours from the annual literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo, and I have to tell you, I wasn’t even sure I’d be running this year.

I had some grand ideas earlier in the month, which promptly crumbled in front of me when I sat down to sketch out my opening scenes.

Normally my novels start out a bit on the slow side, with background and introduction instead of bang-boom-crazy action.  I’m generally okay with this (after all, I’m the one who’s writing it like that), but every time I send a manuscript off to an agent, they tell me the story didn’t grab them the way they wanted it to.

So this time, I tried making something explode in the first sentence.  That’ll do it, right?  Well…it turns out it’s hard to establish the right tone for your sensible, intelligent, domestically-focused character when you blow up her house without giving her a chance to say anything about it.

The subsequent confusion, blood, and urgency may be flashy, but it left Abigale Calloway with nothing to do but scream and be shocked and get rescued in her very first scene, since she didn’t know what the hell was going on and would not have the training or experience to do anything except panic in such a situation.

I have enough trouble writing female main characters (a subject for another post, maybe) without turning them into damsels in distress on page one, so I scrapped those thousand words.  Then I wrote another scene, where someone else’s house exploded instead, but that didn’t work either.  The logistics were all wrong, and Abigale would have had to run into a village under attack to do some things that would be entirely out of character for her anyway.

So I scrapped that one, too.  Twice.  I changed Abigale’s history; I changed the setup of her world; I changed the potential outcome of the story in an effort to get myself excited about writing it, but it all seemed dreary, dull, lame, and lackluster.  And this is all a fortnight before NaNoWriMo was even going to begin.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have seen my angsty post about potentially throwing the whole notion out the window (where it would promptly explode in a dissatisfactory manner, no doubt), but as soon as I published something about my conundrum, I realized what I was doing wrong.

Wishful thinking?

Wishful thinking?

You know, sometimes in archery, I will start off the hour doing very well, and then something will shift without my notice, and I’ll end up with six or seven rounds of off-target garbage.  I’ll get mad at myself for sucking, and try to fix one thing or another, and nothing will work.

Five minutes before I get so frustrated that I’m about to give up, I’ll realize that it all comes back to the one fundamental thing I lose sight of sometimes: my grip on the bow.  I’m so busy worrying about the dynamics of pulling the string back and aiming each time that I forget how important it is to have a solid start.  When I reposition my fingers and relax my arm, suddenly everything comes back into alignment and hitting the gold is easy again.

It’s the same thing with writing.  When I grip the story wrong, nothing else works.  I had planned to write The Night Heron’s War as a stand-alone novel and market it traditionally while I continue to self-publish the rest of The Paderborn Chronicles, just to see what would happen.

Agents tell me my openings are boring, so I was trying to wrestle my novel into a mold that would sell to them.  I wasn’t writing for myself.  I was gripping way too hard, approaching it from the wrong angle, and wrenching my storytelling out of alignment.

I’m all for listening to feedback and incorporating it appropriately, but this particular piece of advice just doesn’t work for me.  If I don’t block out the world sometimes, I succumb to my inferiority complex and end up floundering around in a sea of self-pity.  Some writers like to be pushed to write a best-seller, because the pressure inspires them.  For me, it just makes me want to cry.

Maybe my stories do start off a little more slowly than commercial publishers like to see, but I feel like I do better work when I can do a bit of world building that puts the action into context first.  Maybe this isn’t what will grab the attention of someone who skims through a hundred queries a day, but it’s what makes a good story, as far as I’m concerned.

So I pushed the explosion back a bit, and let Abigale say some intelligent, character-defining things first before I ruined her life forever.  My excitement about the story is back, and I’m looking forward to writing it in a meaningful way.  The rest comes later.

During November, it’s the journey that matters, and I’m ready to get as far as I can in the next thirty days.  Are you?

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Worldbuilding 101: A Dastardly Plot

After running around like a chicken with my head cut off for the past couple of weeks, I finally had a little bit of time this past weekend to relax, calm down, and focus on what’s really important: binge re-watching both seasons of Pushing Daisies.  And, uh…writing.  Right?  Yeah. Totally important.

I’m getting to the meaty part of the second book in my new series, where things start to get really complicated.  Since I hadn’t been able to settle down with my manuscript for a while, I ended up sort of listlessly poking at the keyboard, jotting down a few passages that were pretty but not too relevant, trying to recapture the mood and remember where exactly I was headed.  It isn’t always so easy to dive back into a universe you’ve neglected even for a short period of time, and I was getting frustrated with my lack of direction.  So I turned to my old stand-by when I’m feeling stuck: narrative plotting.

I know a lot of people are pretty rigid when it comes to the way they plan out their books.  I’ve previously recommended programs like SuperNotecard, and plenty of people are sweet on Scrivener or EverNote to keep their thoughts in order.  But I would recommend something a lot simpler if you need to snuggle back into the warm, fluffy blanket of your own imagination – or if you’re just not sure how everything is going to come together or what to write next.

I do this…

plotting

…and I find that it really helps.  I leave the names in, though, so I know what I’m talking about.  It’s informal, easily changed, and it captures my stream of consciousness without nagging about order and perfection.  As much as I love a good old fashioned outline with bullet points and index cards and super organized color-coding, I get most of my best ideas when I’m just going with the flow.

I think I probably will end up transferring the bulk of the series’ plotting to something a little more structured as the story builds and the lies pile up, but when it comes time to figure out what the heck my characters are going to get up to next, I always turn to the simplicity of a non-judgmental blank Word document and the pleasure of free writing my way to an epiphany or two.

There will always be someone better than you

treesThere, I said it.  Okay?  They’re just always going to be there.  Selling more books, getting better reviews, using prettier words, winning more awards, gathering more Twitter followers…there will always be someone who seems smarter, more accomplished, more talented, and better equipped to navigate the rocky shoals of the publishing world.

This is a thought that has paralyzed me more times than I care to admit.  Sometimes I look at my half-finished manuscript, my characters wandering into some dead-end cul-de-sac of plot, standing around aimlessly as they scuffle their shoes in the dirt and wait for me to start making sense again.

“You really suck, you know,” they say, sighing resignedly as they lurch sideways into a brick wall.

“Yeah, I know,” I reply, before getting up from the keyboard and carrying the half-eaten bag of potato chips into the bedroom, where I curl up in a ball and cry a bit.  “The thing is,” I whisper to the ceiling, “there’s always someone better.”

I can’t be the only one who has felt deflated by my Twitter feed on Hugo night, or be the only one whose demons start swarming every time I read about that peppy, pretty 20-year-old with the Eragon knock-off who just signed a six-figure deal.  Writers can be mean and jealous creatures, overly-competitive but sometimes too shy and internally-focused to do anything but beat themselves up about other people’s successes.  But that’s like feeding hemlock to your muse, and it’s both counter-productive and tiring to always feel inferior to your peers.

Because unlike sports figures who have to compete for a limited number of spots on a team, the book-reading audience is unlimited.  People don’t just buy one book, or align themselves with one author and shun the rest for the remainder of their lives.  They buy lots and lots of books, and are always looking for new writers to spark their interest.  They’ll buy top authors and they’ll buy unknowns.  They’ll take a chance on someone who might not be great, or someone who just thinks they might not be great.  It doesn’t matter if there are people better than you are, because there’s still a market for you, too.  All you have to do is capture their interest – and we all know that the quality of a book isn’t necessarily a predictor of its popularity.

So relax.  Put the potato chips away.  Learn to admire, accept, and emulate the people who are better than you are instead of dooming yourself to being defeated by them.  I know it’s hard, and I know there will always be days when I feel the crushing weight of fantasy giants and their big gold trophies and fat paychecks bogging me down.

Sure, there are people who find instant fame and a movie deal with their first book.  Sure, there are the household names who have barely gotten through puberty.  But just because I’m not the best (yet) doesn’t mean I’m not good.  It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.  You have to start somewhere, and it’s really hard to type when your fingers are covered in chip grease.  So get up and get over it.  There will always be someone better.  But if you close Twitter for a while and reread what you just wrote, you might find that you’re halfway to greatness yourself.

How to conquer your writer’s block

busybeeWriter’s block is the worst.  Your plot is going nowhere, you want to murder all your characters just to stop their vapid, pointless whining, and you’ve already spent ten pages describing the room where your main character is sitting and brooding on something that has absolutely no relation to the rest of the story.  It’s hot out, you should be doing chores, your laptop is burning your knees, and your children haven’t eaten in days because you’ve been glued to your chair, unable to stop staring at the stagnant, blinking cursor in abject terror and humiliation.

So you google “how to get past my writer’s block” and spend a few hours reading about what famous, wealthy, successful, award-winning authors do when their inspiration dries up, and feel even worse about yourself because at this rate, you’ll never even finish a first draft to stick in the back of your drawer and never look at again before you die miserable and alone.

Sound familiar?  Yeah.  It happens to all of us.  Luckily, your internet searching has brought you to this foolproof, comprehensive list of how to lure your muse back to your corner.  There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, but this is the sum total of everything you need to know.

Write

Yeah, you suck right now.  But you have to do it anyway.  No amount of yoga or illegal stimulants or brisk walks around the block is going to change the fact that your fingers have to get moving.  You can go ahead and do your invigorating handstands or whip up that cocktail of raw egg and Worcestershire sauce and ginseng, or whatever floats your boat.

Take a break, order a pizza for the kids, and think about that blossoming love triangle while you sweep the floors.  Then sit your butt back at the keyboard, shut your mouth, and type.  Eventually, you’ll suck a little less, and you’ll realize that it’s all right to cut out all your lame paragraphs on the second pass.  Your pep will return of its own accord as you pick up steam again.  I promise.

Don’t write

Do you give up?  Are you really just finished with this whole charade?  Are you satisfied with simply having tried?  Then all the motivational speaking, jumping jacks, and Mark Twain quotes in the world aren’t going to change your mind.  When you reach that point, you’re done.  Put it away and shut off the computer.  Godspeed, pilgrim, and well may you fare.

But if that rubs you the wrong way, and makes you kind of squirmy and angry even if you’re not sure why, it’s because you’re not finished!   You’ve just got writer’s block, remember?  Come on.  Shake it off.  Return to Section A.  Read, rinse, and repeat.

And that’s it, folks.  There’s nothing wrong with stepping away for a little while, and there’s nothing wrong with trying new ways of organizing your story, new writing prompts, or just sitting in a different room to switch things up a bit.  There’s nothing wrong with trashing an idea when it peters out and starting something new.  Writer’s block is a deeply vexing but completely temporary phenomenon.  Write, and you have conquered.  Write, and you win.  Just make sure someone is watching the kids.

World Building 101: Stress Fractures

NeuschwansteinWhen I was in my freshman year of college, I was sitting at my desk doing some homework.  I reached out towards the mouse, and twang.  Something weird happened in my wrist.  A little strange snapping noise, a bit of pain, but I ignored it and it mostly went away.  The next few days, I felt like I had sprained it.  The next few weeks, I started to get worried.

The next two and a half years, after lots of doctors, x-rays, a couple of MRIs, and a lot of cab fare to see a specialist in New York City, my entire life became consumed with the fact that I couldn’t use my wrist at all without a great deal of pain, and no one in the world seemed to know why.

Eventually, that specialist found the answer.  I had a quick surgery to repair a tear in a loose tendon sheath that was disrupting the whole motion of my joint, and now I’m as good as new.  But that tiny movement brought everything to a screeching halt for longer than I had ever anticipated.

That tiny, little, insignificant part of my body, that shred of cartilage, changed everything else about my life because it decided to misbehave.  It sent me on a painful, expensive, tedious journey that taught me lessons I didn’t particularly want to learn, but altered the way I view my physical self.

Whether you’re a vegetable smoothie world builder or a proponent of a more direct approach, developing your setting is the key to drawing in your readers and retaining them throughout the arc of your story.  And in fantasy, that story arc often involves some kind of seismic shift in the political landscape that sends your characters tumbling along on their adventures, at the mercy of capricious gods or evil men.  It’s not always a huge, cosmic event, and it’s often a lot more believable for the world to turn on the fate of one man (or an ornery tendon) than it is for a planet to come crashing into the sun.

It’s that imperceptible shift in landscape, that tiny rupture in the norm, which drives history forward.  So the primary question you need to ask is this:  What is keeping my world working, and what is the absolute smallest thing that can make it stop?

People in a world with many cultures or races or even a rigid social strata tend not to like each other very much.  Why not?  How can you create a spark that makes those tensions erupt into conflict?  It doesn’t have to be more than someone of the wrong caste walking into the wrong shop.  An argument is started, someone gets shoved, and all of a sudden, you’ve got people bashing each other with rocks in the street, a panicked ruler afraid of an uprising, and a smarmy foreign king looking to swoop in and exploit the chaos that tips the region into all-out war.

Societies crumble easily.  Revolutions start from the bottom up, and find openings where one might not expect.  Tiny, stupid things align to bring down dynasties, and those unexpected stress fractures have felled more empires than I can easily count.  So try it.  Raise a tax.  Imprison an activist.  Reveal an illicit affair.  Derail a peace talk because someone throws up on a rival after drinking too much.  They’re not big things, but they can bring action, tension, bloodshed, and impetus to your landscape, providing a rich and realistic backdrop for your characters to wade through as they strive to heal the wounds.

Do Not Resuscitate

Image055I’m a failure, and I write absolute garbage.  The words come out, and I suppose they’re technically English, and maybe they even obey the rules of grammar and syntax that make them vaguely recognizable as sentences, but they suck.  Plain and simple.  My ideas are crap, my execution is laughable, and there’s only one thing to do with this mindless drivel: banish it to the dungeon of my hard drive, the miserable and haunted DNR folder.

I think we all have one.  I hope we all have one.  If you’ve never thrown anything in the trash, chances are that your ego is getting the best of you.  Even the greatest writers have moments of sheer fury and madness, self-doubt and self-pity that result in torn, crumpled pages on the office floor.  Sometimes they go back to what’s frustrating them and turn it around.  Sometimes they don’t.

And that’s how it should be.  As much as I like to tell people not to give up after the first three pages, oftentimes it’s not an issue of writer’s block or the sudden, overwhelming grip of fear as you realize that 70,000 words is a lot to get through.  Occasionally, you’re paralyzed because your story is crap, and it really shouldn’t ever see the light of day.  The trick is knowing the difference, and there are only two questions you need in order to figure it out.

Does it make me happy?

Do you want to sit down at the keyboard?  Do you want to know what happens to your characters or how the war turns out?  Do you want other people to know?  Are you ignoring this post because you’re flipping back and forth between my blog and your Word document, desperate not to lose a moment of typing time?  Have you forgotten to eat today?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you’re probably in good shape.  I mean, go eat something, but then come back and keep typing.  But if you stop feeling happy…

Did it ever make me happy?

This one is a little trickier, but it’s even more important.  The first flush of inspiration can mask many darker feelings, and it takes time and self-awareness to parse through them.  I worked on a project once that I thought was going to be my magnum opus: it was dark and brooding and emotionally wrenching, full of chaos and fear and heroism and the triumph of love.  It started out with an unexpected death that tore a family apart, and it barely got any more cheerful from there.

It was good, I guess.  It was written well, and there were some scenes that I liked a lot.  But I hated working on it, and it never made me happy.  It never made me skip dinner or stay up past my bed time.  It was a chore from the first page to the middle of chapter four, which is where it came to a sudden halt before being abandoned for good.

I know I’ve complained about The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun making me feel the same way.  It’s a long, intricate story that contains a lot of the same emotions as that other attempt, and there was a lot of history for me to slog through.  But in the back of my head, the fire was burning, and it never flickered and went out.  Sure, it took effort to force out the words sometimes and get past a momentary block, but I wanted to get over it.  I wanted to pick it out of the garbage pail and try again.  I wanted to pursue it, because sometimes it made me very, very happy indeed.

That might be the only difference between a story worth pursuing and an idea that belongs in the DNR bin.  I am proud of what I’ve ended up with (so far), and I’m glad that I was able to stumble through.  That’s the real test.  So next time you’re starting at the screen in a haze of forlorn anxiety, wondering when the words will come, ask yourself.  Is there happiness in pursuing this, or should I move on?

For the Love of the Game

Note for anyone who may be remotely worried, since I’m located in the Boston area: I’m perfectly all right and know no one who was personally affected by the events at the Marathon on Monday.  I’m as shocked, upset, and sad as anyone, but I’m equally encouraged by the efforts from our first responders, police officers, and ordinary citizens who turned a moment of tragedy into yet another reason to be proud of my quirky, crazy, brash, fiercely loyal, and deeply caring adopted hometown.

***

April is just a little more than halfway over, and that means we’re heading into Camp NaNoWriMo crunch time.  I’ve been doing pretty well so far, staying about a day and a half ahead of my target despite a lost weekend due to company, and another one coming my way in a few days.  I’ve been hitting 2,000 words per day pretty consistently, which is great, and I may even hit 50,000 before the deadline, knock on wood.

The ride hasn’t been this smooth since 2009, when I leaped into my first November with the first draft of The Last Death.  Since then, I’ve worked on The Paper Flower, some untitled mess that will never see the light of day, and spent last year’s main event and both of the Camp sessions slogging through The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun to various degrees of success.

ambergriscovergoodThis April, for those of you who don’t like me on Facebook (like me on Facebook!), I am indeed working on my rollicking seafaring adventure story called Ambergris, which seems to have turned into a young adult coming-of-age Treasure Island knock off…with dragons.  Weird for me, right?  Right!  I mean, come on!  But I kind of love it, and I’m having more fun than I ever thought possible with such a tale.  And that’s what’s making the words flow effortlessly.

That’s also what was missing with The Spoil, and why it was such an effort to drag myself to the keyboard everyday.  I’m not saying it’s not a good book – it’s a very, very good book, and I’m very proud of it.  It’s dark and exciting and heartbreaking and full of beautiful, tragic, extraordinary things, just like a fantasy novel should be.  But writing it was an obligation, in a way.  People were asking for it.  The Last Death demanded a prequel.  It is/was my sophomore novel, which is a pressure point all on its own.  It has to be good, because The Last Death is good.  It has to be better.

That’s a tall order, and while I think I’ve satisfied it (or will satisfy it when I’ve done a good edit), that’s not why I like to write.  I like to go on the adventure with my characters, throw them curve balls, see how they duck and weave through challenges as the nets draw tighter and the stakes get high.  I like to see the plot come together in unexpected ways, tie up those loose ends, and type “the end” knowing I have poured my heart and soul, sweat and angst and adrenaline onto those pages and come out with something worth spending time with.  That’s the joy of writing.  That’s the only reason to do it.

And that’s something I’ve recaptured now that the expectation of writing a history book that contains all the answers and no mistakes has been lifted.  I’m very glad to know that I can have that feeling again: that it wasn’t a one time thing with the first flush of discovering that I like writing books.  I’m hoping that I’ll be able to bottle a little of it and keep it around when I edit The Spoil at the end of the month.  I think I’ll be able to, and it will only improve my work.

But for now, I’m going to follow my strange, silly, surprising path, and see where it goes.  If you look up on the top of the site, you’ll see a brand new page for Ambergris with a blurb and an excerpt, and I’d love to hear what you think.

I hope you are all safe and well, and experiencing the same mad, gleeful pleasure of putting words on paper.