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Month: August 2010

Back in training

Back in training

There was a time when I wrote a thousand words a night, every single night. I’m not sure I can ever get back to that. I didn’t have other commitments back then, and I did far less revising and editing than I do now. Much of that effort is still sitting in my Inactive folder, in the form of stories that were just never done enough or good enough to send out.

I have yet to meet a writer who is naturally inclined toward self-discipline. It seems that discipline is a learned skill for most of us, which is funny because it’s also one of our early excuses, isn’t it. “I just don’t have the discipline!” the new writer will say, as if the rest of us do have it and this all just comes effortlessly to us. I know I said it (to nobody in particular) and assumed that you successful writers out there were simply blessed with a personality trait that I wasn’t.

Wrong. I had to learn it back then, and I have to re-learn it now.

I tossed my self-discipline out the window a few months ago when life did that thing it does and completely changed again. Since March I’ve been poking half-heartedly at my stories and just not getting very far. Now I’ve got this novel to write, and I’m going to need discipline to do it. So I’ve started myself on a little writing regimen, just something to decalcify my brain and get back into the rhythm of producing. It consists of a few warm-up exercises, and I’m writing them all by hand–that’s what it takes to keep me off the internet these days!

What I’m doing is a) a copy exercise, where I’m literally just copying an existing story (from a 1930’s book of fairy tales.) This is serving two functions: warms up the hand, and gives me a chance to really think about what I’m writing down, analyze the structure, notice the little gems, etc. It also puts me in a fairy tale frame of mind, which tends to be my favorite frame of mind in which to write. (And will be relevant to this project.)

Exercise b) is working my way through an old edition of a writing book called What If? that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. This is forcing me to do stuff I don’t want to do. I really don’t want to write pairs of first sentences about birth and death, I don’t want to write off a prompt, I DON’T WANNA. (I was terrible at school because of this very trait.) This is making me think in ways I don’t usually think, making me limber up mentally a little bit, and is a simple exercise in discipline. Don’t wanna? Do it anyway.

The two together only take me 15-30 minutes, but it puts me in the right mindset to take on the next thing, which right now is character development. I’m currently doing a character sketch of my protagonist. I’ve never done anything that formal. It’s surprisingly slow going, but I think it’s going to help a lot. I’m getting to know her, and she’s already starting to surprise me.

So that’s now an Every Day thing. I’m looking forward to the day that I can follow it up by just writing full-steam ahead. Right now I’m just trying to make sure I’m ready for it when the day comes, not too far from now. My collaborator has a bunch of other deadlines to defeat over the next few weeks, so I have time.

None of this replaces work on the current short story, which I’m finally making some progress on, and of course there’s still slush to read and various little tasks that come up. Oh, and fiction to narrate! I’m excited about that, and am very glad there isn’t a deadline for it.

But I think these mental calisthenics are important. When the time comes to power out some awesome fiction and write a book people want to read, I will be ready!

New novel, and the results of asking Twitter for help

New novel, and the results of asking Twitter for help

I’ve been slacking on the blog again. SO MUCH is happening, and yet I haven’t been able to boil any of it down. In the time since I last blogged I’ve been to NYRSF, ReaderCon, and Boom Days (one of these things is not like the others!) I’ve picked up a freelance reviewing job, slush has reopened at Lightspeed, the Overlord brought on a new Editorial Assistant and new slush reader who both completely rock, and Adam-Troy Castro’s story “Arvies” (which appeared in Lightspeed this week) has received a ton of recognition, some of it from none other than Harlan Ellison. I’m still slogging away at “Slayer of Alien Gods” and have scheduled a sofa retreat for Labor Day weekend to get the damnable thing done. I also adopted a new dog with my significant other. (Pictures another time.)

That’s the update, and I’m sure that much of it was blog-worthy, but I think the next project will be the thing that gets the blog engine running again.

In five years of November noveling I have produced three first drafts with actual beginnings, middles, and ends, and two 15000-word rough starts. I’ve approached each one a little bit differently, sometimes just diving in with a vague character and a situation in mind; sometimes spending a month outlining and notecarding each and every scene. I learned a lot about what does and does not work for me while writing those novels. I like all three of the “completed” ones for different reasons and some day may return to them. Every now and then someone suggests that I should be working on a novel, and I’ll think about them and decide I’m going to start editing novel A, B, or C. The thing is, I’m not accountable to anyone else in what I write. It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny new idea and the closer-to-instant gratification of a new short story. There is no deadline, there is no one waiting for chapters.

Until now.

I’m getting ready to write a new novel, and this one differs from the others in one important respect: it’s a collaboration. The story itself is one I would never have come up with on my own, and will bring together the very different literary affinities that my collaborator and I have. I had some misgivings at first (the idea was proposed a few months ago) but now I’m getting really excited about it. I think we can make this work–both the collaborative process and the story.

We’re in the planning stage right now. We’ve agreed that we need to work from an outline; my experience has been that the more detailed the outline, the easier the writing goes, but we’re starting high-level and then fleshing it out later.

Here’s what we know:

We’re each writing a different POV character, in different locations (so not shared experience–this will take some serious lit fu to keep it cohesive. It needs to be a shared /story/ even if it not a shared experience. I believe we can do it.)

  • We’re writing alternating chapters
  • We’re probably writing in the third person
  • We are writing for the YA market
  • We know roughly where the story starts
  • We know what the main source of peril and conflict is
  • We have some ideas about obstacles our characters encounter along the way
  • We know roughly where the story ends

The next task for both of us is to think about our characters. Honestly this is something I have always skirted over in planning before now, to the detriment of the story. With that in mind, today I asked Twitter for advice on pre-noveling character development. The response was awesome (I <3 you guys) and I thought I'd share the results here. The question I posed was: @inkhaven WRITERS! any tips on pre-noveling character development? do you write bios? character sketches? wing it?

Here’s what Twitter said.

@iamboogie I often write bios and situations they’ve previously experienced, especially formative ones. I try writing how they might talk.

@winnie3k I just got Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens, which has some remarkable characterizing quizzes.

@synaesthete I did some 1st person “emotional sketches” to get into protag’s head, flesh out what really drives her/what she cares about
Also figured out the basics: where she’s from, size/shape/color, siblings/none, education. Doesnt go into book, but I need to know
Roomie at writers’ retreat asked me a great question, too: what’s protag’s zodiac sign? More fodder for quirky personality traits.

@themidnightoil I normally do a bit of backstory, a bit of where I want them to go, and then general name/appearance, and then write.
I also have a book on archetypes I like to look at, just to see if I can plant a little conflict in a character.

@inkgorilla when really stuck, i have list of “20 questions” to ask my character. write the answers as fast as i can, use some, reject others.

@listener42 Most of my stories start with a character, not a plot point. I build plots once I have a character I’d like to know better.

@exaggerated I wing it. My characters come Athena-like.

@rsdevin pre-noveling character dev: combo of brief notes & ‘winging it,’ but once the char begins to ‘click’ I go back & expand the notes.

@of_many_masks A teacher in college had a questionnaire for fleshing characters. It worked pretty well for me…

@lilysea I interviewed a character on her motivations and attitudes about a dozen things once in my head on a long car drive.

@phiala I start with scene/idea, wing it for a while until I know more about what’s going on. Then do char sketches or bios & outline.
Then rewrite beginning, and carry on with some clue what I’m doing (true for both plot and characters).

@stephanieburgis I like doing collages, Jennifer-Crusie-style:

@adribbleofink Full-on character bios: physical description, motivations, behind-the-scenes plot stuff, character sketches. Add to it as I write.

@jennreese For my last book, I wrote tiny, unimportant scenes in each character’s voice. Just day-in-the-life stuff. Fun and very helpful!

@jackkincaid9 I would always wing it, at first, and then write summary sketches after for easy reference if anything slips my mind later

@jeremiahtolbert I’m working on a six issue comic miniseries right now, and I’m finding doing character sketches very helpful

@rajanyk I usually just start with an idea and it tends to develop as I write. By the end of the first draft they’re usually all there.
But I’m a person who needs to find the story and I rarely outline until after a draft is done (if that)

@davisac1 I like to leave them vague enough to accommodate elements as the plot demands.

@shyjot Learning about characters is like learning about strangers in real life: you find out the details and quirks over time.
And, like in life, if you don’t write down the details or see them often enough they’re like ash on a breeze. Receipts beware!

@shadowflame1974 Short stories that feature the characters but most development is done in the story itself
also have another writer interview your character. You find out some amazing things that way. (don’t think just let char answer

@sladner I love Douglas copeland’s technique in microserfs: top 6 dream jeopardy categories eg Honda civic; bitterness

If there’s anything we know about writing, it’s that no two people have the exact same process, and what works for one may not work for another, which explains the range of approaches. This week I’ll get together with my co-author and we’ll go through your tips and choose a course of action for ourselves. I’ll let you know what we decide. Many thanks to those who shared!

It’s funny. As hesitant as I was at first (you want to write a story about /what/? I don’t write about that! A collaboration? We’ll hate each other by the end!) having had plenty of time to think about it and let it take shape, I can honestly say I’ve never believed in a project more than I believe in this one. Wish us luck.