Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Big Breakthrough

It happened. At last I broke 100K words on a novel. Rules of Engagement, a steampunk novel I've been working on for the last several months, is complete at 117K words. I've gotten a beta reader and will be working on the edits.

It's been a crazy ride, this book. I've had a lot of fun writing it, researching for it and finding inspiration for it. Writing a book this long is something I'm proud of, and while I've never ascribed to longer is better, I do believe that each story requires a certain amount of space.

This one needed a lot of space, and it surpassed my expectations by about 17K words.

No matter, in edits the number will likely come down a little, but I don't expect to come under 100K.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Illustrating the World

Because I'm also an artist, I find that it can be very helpful to have visual stimulus when writing. So I draw a great deal when I'm writing. Usually character sketches, animal concepts, and the occasional building, scene, etc.

This is Charlotte, the protagonist for Rules of Engagement, the novel I'm currently working on/breaking word count barriers with. (I got to 84K words today!)

Charlotte is a soldier, spy, and lady who disguises herself as a man for much of the book. This conflict of self and personality was something I wanted to draw, so I did this half and half piece to get it out.

Obviously, drawing isn't something all writers do, so I advocate heartily for finding someone who does. Seeing visual representations of your ideas can be very helpful.

You don't have to stick with just character concepts either. Sometimes we need to firm up a creature concept, design or even just get a better handle on size. To that end I did a quick series of animal sketches a while back for a story that still mulling through my brain.

This is Toby, AKA, an American Runner. A giant land bird much like an ostrich or emu except with heavier bones and body mass and larger head, shorter neck and more pronounced defensive features.

I did a bit of research along the way while designing him, needless to say, and am overall pleased with the result. More importantly, I was able to firmly establish some roots for the world I was building.

You can really get into this sort of development with landscape drawings and even city layouts, blueprints and other schematics. I find visual representations very helpful in keeping track of all sorts of things. I make maps, draw out command structures and make family trees. I occasionally sketch out pivotal sequences and do rough comics for some sections.

If I'm uncertain about a decision, it can be really helpful. With Rules of Engagement, I've needed a lot of maps and charts. There are battle plans, regiment movements and all sorts  of things I have to work out, know and decide on. It's like being a general.

You are always the commander of the army that is your story, but sometimes, renegade soldiers can tear things in a new direction. We can cover that in My Characters are Taking Over!

Remember, it's not a matter of talent, if you feel you can't do justice to your concept, get out there and find someone you think can. When I get frustrated by a character, or feel out of my comfort zone, I get out and find someone who draws the things I need and commission them. (I have a few standby artists I keep going back to) Or, you know, hit up a few artistic friends.

Good luck, and don't be afraid to put pencil to paper and illustrate your world!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Writer's Block - Dealing

We've all had it. That moment of absolute frustration when nothing will come to us. It's like our brain is shut off. The characters stop cooperating, you don't know where the story is going and nothing you do seems to help.

Well, I don't really have that problem anymore. I'm not saying I don't have those moments. I do. But I've found ways of coping. When your writing becomes stagnant, IE, you hit a road block, it's most likely caused by a couple of different things.

Lack of ideas
Writer cave syndrome

Stress is the hardest thing to overcome. Our emotions greatly effect our productivity as writers. I can think of a couple months where it was all I could do to get up out of bed in the morning, but the one thing that got me up was that I knew I had a goal, I had a story to tell and that story was going to keep me moving. Everyone has to find a way to cope with stress. Whether it's yoga, a day out, a bath, whatever, you have to find a way to relax that works for you.

A lack of ideas is the easiest thing to overcome. You just need to get out there and absorb. Go to the library and read. Go see a new movie, watch TV, read a newspaper, talk to friends, play a game. You need to recharge that battery.

Writer cave syndrome. Do you find yourself hissing at sunlight? Have you drunk more caffeinated beverages in the last month than water? Is your room a mess? Does your desk look like a national disaster area? What is that furry thing growing out of the trashcan? And oh god, did that laundry just move on it's own? Yeah. You have become a writer troll. This syndrome is easy enough to fix. Step one, open the curtains. I know, it's scary, but go ahead.

Step two, shower and hydrate yourself with real water. Not Monster or whatever your poison is. Next up, eat something green. No, I don't mean that moldy cheese. Veggies folks. You need them. After that, it's time for cleaning. Do your laundry, take out the trash, clean your desk.

Clean? Great. Now it's outside time. You've made good progress having the curtains open, but you need fresh air. You probably haven't slept in a couple days, so try taking a nap. You may want to shower again depending on how deep into the writer cave you slunk.

Now, try doing some more housework, cook some food and get the hell out of the house. You need to shake the dirt off.

The most important thing is, no writing. That's right, I said no writing. It's seems counterproductive, but if you try to go back to the writing too soon, you could relapse. Give yourself a couple of days, and once someone you love tells you you are no longer acting like a vampire, go ahead and write again.

Writer's block pretty much boils down to two sources. Internal and external. Writer's cave syndrome is an internal block. You've buried yourself so far down the rabbit hole you can't see up anymore. Stress is usually externally motivated, but not always. A lack of ideas is, however, completely your fault.

Yup, I said it. If I'm out of ideas, that's my fault. I need to recharge, it's totally on me.

All of this said, the best solution I've found to writer's block is having people to bounce ideas off of. Talking things out with someone can be incredibly helpful. Don't be afraid to try it, because guess what, everybody is weird. Writers do not hold the monopoly.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cultural Opposites: Writing from new roots

I often find myself dipping into the same cultural cookie jar when drawing inspiration for writing. It doesn't matter what genre I'm writing in. I tend to fall back to Irish roots fairly easily, and focusing on Catholicism or similar religions. It's actually a bit strange. You see, I'm not Catholic. I don't doubt there are Irish roots in my family, however, but there are plenty of other roots too. There are bits of German, Jewish, Scottish, British and the other common European ancestry that I can draw from.

I can also draw from having a family that fought in the Civil War (both sides of the fence) and very well could reach to the American Revolution. My family has a broad swath of cultural possibilities.

That said, limiting yourself just to your own family isn't always the way to go. Limiting yourself to the cultures you know can be stifling.

I branched out from Europe and headed for Russia in response to stagnation and created something new. You see, that's one of the things I love about world building. You get a chance to write all of the histories, the religion, the culture. It's all up to you. That doesn't mean you can't take a hand up here and there. I drew inspiration from Russia, Ancient Rome, and even the beloved worlds built by others. I took the things I loved and hated, the things that married into unity, and created something that was a little bit of everything, but really it's own.

But that's really only one way to write using other cultures. Recently I was tasked with writing a horror story that did not stick to American convention. Something with new monsters. Something unfamiliar. Well, when I want the strange and unfamiliar, I dip into Japanese and Asian folklore. (They have the coolest monsters) The important thing is to do it right.

If you're going to write a culture with as much history and depth, you can't lose sight of what actually important to the story. You need to use the elements that are necessary to story telling and excise the rest. You can't be heavy handed with it. That's how you end up with Japan-o-phile sounding drivel and or some fanfiction.

Writing with another cultures roots should be done with respect, and a full battery of research, but don't let the culture outweigh the story you are trying to tell. Let it weave through the story.

I don't change the way I write horror when I write about things that take place in, or have characters from, Japan. My style remains the same. My characters are influenced by heritage, but unless for some plot reason, are not overwhelmed by it.

There are a lot of things you can do wrong when writing about another country's culture. You can do things wrong when writing about your own too. It's not mutually exclusive. Every culture should be treated with care. Research (Books people, not just the interweb) is your friend. You can, and should delve back as deep as you want. But never forget about researching the modern world as well. If you're writing a story that takes place in present day Dublin, for heavens sake people, RESEARCH IT! Get on googlemaps and learn the city.

Get on local websites, find out about local pubs and hotspots. Look at the news for the area. Really learn about the place where you've settled your story.

It can take hundreds of hours of research to write a book, it depends on your personality, how you research and how well you know your subject. That shouldn't dissuade you from trying, however. I enjoy research and also enjoy writing from prior knowledge. It's a balancing act.

So make fresh choices, set stories in new places and don't be afraid to try to write from another person's roots. Because limiting yourself can get you stuck. They say you should write what you know, in some senses that is true. But guess what, you can learn something new, and then write about that too. Just learn it first. It's a bit easier than researching half way through the book and having to rewrite. Trust me.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Trying out Tone

The tone of your writing is something that you must monitor throughout the process. The same thing can be said dozens of different ways simply by changing the tone. Characters tie into tone and tone ties into genre, and in the end, if they don't marry well, your book isn't going to fly.

For example. If you're writing about a taciturn ranch hand as the hero of your high fantasy novel and you set the tone of it with an opening line as florid as a girl's love note, we have a problem. Sure, your taciturn ranch hand could be a secret romantic, but somehow I don't think gushy is going to come off as believable.

Three different tones, same idea:

The sky was green and cloudy.

The verdant heavens rolled above me, twisting illusions in the cumulus.

Green skies. Tornado weather.

See that? Each of these says the same thing, but in three separate tones. One, is boring. Two, is florid and three is reticent. Got a character who doesn't talk much? Well book! Short, clipped sentences it is!

Your tone can express so much with so little. I am well known as the queen of the sentence fragment. I use them, abuse them and love them. A sentence fragment can be the right call in the right situation. Our taciturn ranch hand certainly comes off as brusque in option three, doesn't he?

Experimenting with tone changes can help your writing. Something not working in your story? Perhaps it's nothing to do with the plot, perhaps it's the tone!

The tone makes the story. Brings the landscape of words to life. Breathes a voice into the descriptions. So don't ever be afraid to try out different tones. You may get unexpected, and fun results!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Breaking Barriers

There's this thin filament of a barrier that runs through my work. I call it, the word count problem. I've been taught for a long time now, that the sign of a good writer is being able to tell a story in a concise, clean and economical manner. That means I tend to have shorter word counts. I disdain padding, and superfluous descriptions. There was a point when my writing edged on anemic because of this barrier.

It can be very difficult to break past things like that. Sometimes, it seems that worst thing a budding writer can do, is major in writing. (I minored). You're inundated with ideas and practices and not all of them are very good. To be frank, there are a lot of instructors out there who have never been published and really don't know what it takes to get published. They are only interested in teaching you this book's manner or that book's method. They teach other people's writing methodology.

The best teachers I've ever had I can think of right away. Two of them were anonymous peers I met on a website. They tore my writing to shreds, toughened me up and very much molded me into the writer I am today. When, for the first time ever, one of them complimented me, it was the highest praise I could imagine. I knew I had earned it.

The third was a professor who helped me grow by giving me the room to do so. She encouraged my foibles and oddities and put me closer than I'd ever been to something every writer has to discover: Their style. She gave me a push towards the sometimes florid, concise contradiction that is my writing today.

Another professor helped me past my first word count hurdle. I broke 60K words with his help and wrote what is still the strangest, most complicated piece of fiction I've ever written (and rewritten and rewritten).

The last, was a strange man in a fedora. I truly found my style there. It was Florence, Italy and I had big dreams. I took a writing class to round out my schedule and was pleasantly surprised at what I found. I wrote poetry for the first time in years (some of it is even good) and while there discovered a passion for deeper and deeper plots.

These days, I still learn. I meet new people all the time that teach me things. It never ceases to amaze me what it is possible with the written word.

The barrier I broke day was an important one, which of course made me consider the past. Today I broke 75K words. The novel I'm working on will be my first to break 100K. It's a moment of pride for me, let me tell you. I rarely sprawl out in a novel, so this is a rarity for me. Hopefully, I can take this milestone and progress further to the next. Because that is what writing is all about.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Repost: Personal Politics and Writing

Another pertinent re-post from the old blog. I only have three or four of these, but I think the content is still good. 

 I was watching that TV show about the missing persons unit of the FBI today and it was about a girl that went to jail for her sister after a car crash which killed a friend of theirs.

It made me think about Bloodlines and how my characters would respond if put in prison. This led me to thinking about the 1950's and how mental health care has changed over the past fifty years which had me recalling an episode of Cold Case about a girl that dresses as a boy, falls for a boy and whose father has her committed after which she ends up brain dead and her boyfriend kills her out of mercy.

Yeah, that's how my thought trains work. Basically, I left out a few stations.

In any case, this led me to thinking about how I insert my personal prejudices and beliefs into what I write. We all do it, it's nearly impossible not to. But I've also found myself writing a scene, character or incident that I find distasteful, immoral or just plain wrong. This was a particular issue some time ago while writing a very bigoted side character who used words I would never use, ever, ever, ever, ever.

I suppose the central issue was that I didn't want other to think that I thought that what he said was all right. Because I didn't. But in the end, that's why I was writing him in. I wanted to show how wrong it was to behave and say the things he did.

A huge theme in everything I write is about lifestyles, cultures and occasionally racial, differences. I don't think anyone should be discriminated against just because they are gay/straight/bi/transgender, culturally bizarre or a different color, religion, creed or species.

(See that, I included aliens.)

While I'll admit there are aspects of certain cultures I find repugnant, I can say the same about my own cultural heritage. There are things about the past within my own culture that I would never condone. It can be difficult to balance those feelings with the position of a character. They say that you should always write what you know, but as a person who writes mostly fantasy, well, I've never actually seen or been bitten by a werewolf so...I have to go with what I read, watch and learn about through alternative sources.

A writer should be capable of writing anything. Any character, any scene. In theory. We all struggle with different things that are outside our comfort zone. The only way to push past that is by doing just that, pushing. Freaked out by swearing? Write the most profane dialogue you can think of.

Can't write an action scene? (I recommend acting it out with furniture, alone) Write the most brutal action sequence ever!

Blood and guts? Bloodbath time. Murderer? Do it. Dialogue? Talk it out and then, write pages and pages of dialogue until your fingers bleed and you get it right.

A writer should push the envelope of their comfort zone. You never know what amazing thing you'll discover when you do. The things you could write. The people you could meet. The characters you could kill off in a brutal sequence of murder by toaster....

We can't entirely erase our personal politics and beliefs from our writing, but we have to try and be objective. Show both sides. Sure, you might make that murdering psycho toaster bastard kill himself with a toaster in a bathtub on page 246, but you did show everyone that despite his murderous ways he's also an accomplished chef and animal lover.

There are two sides to every coin.