Calling All Aspiring Authors – Charity and Critique, rolled into one!

Over at Pat Rothfuss’ blog, they’re auctioning off critiques (some with editing) by a variety of publishing professionals. People donating their time and brains range from agents to authors to professional editors.

If you’ve got a manuscript that needs some love, or will have one in the near future, you should definitely check it out, and maybe lay down a couple of bucks for Heifer International.

My Characters are Not in Control

It is possible that I’m just a curmudgeon. Maybe there is no poetry left in my soul. But it drives me crazy when I hear people talk about their characters refusing to do something, or taking the story in an entirely new direction.

I think it’s because I have a pretty strong negative reaction to the categorization of anything mundane as mystical and ineffable. It just feels lazy to me. It’s something I picked up while studying martial arts, which are perhaps the single most romanticized pastime in the US. Writing, like martial arts, is work. And if you don’t do the work, counting on mystical forces and autonomous characters to do it for you, you’re going to end up with a crappy end result.

I am not talking about organic modification of characters or plot lines as you make decisions. Sometimes I can end up with a story running into areas I didn’t envision when I first outlined it. Sometimes I make decisions about my characters that make your original plan for them feel forced, or not make sense at all. I may choose to move in this newly recognized direction, or I may choose to go back and change my character to make them fit the original idea. Either way, the operative word there is I. Every bit of that hypothetical situation rides on the back of my decisions.

Those decisions aren’t always conscious. Sometimes they regress back to something that was decided off-the-cuff without a thought to how it might become important later. Sometimes they are truly subconscious. My mind will worry at a character concept in the background the same way it does a story idea.

Mystifying the mundane leads to lazy thinking. It can even lead to complete fallacies becoming canonical and being handed down between generations of practitioners. To return to my martial arts analogy, taijiquan has been notorious for this. “Taiji practitioners are 100% relaxed.” (No, they’d fall down if that were true.) “Taiji makes no use of external (muscular) strength.” Tell that to Chen Xiaowang when he’s in a horse stance with his thighs parallel to the ground. One of my training partners who was largely a rational man used to claim that he wasn’t using his muscles when he did the form. He would “prove” this by pointing out some muscle group he wasn’t using. He didn’t take it well when you poked him in a fully engaged, well developed muscle six inches away.

Writing is the same way. At the end of the day, there’s no net. No recourse. I wrote it. I made the decisions that led my story where it is. I can hide my head in the sand and blame the muse, or failing inspiration, or “characters taking over the story.” Or I can own my part in it, examine what I’ve got to learn why it came out that way, and figure out how to make it better.

I know which one I’d rather do.

(This post was inspired by some awesome discussions we had in the #shutupandwrite chatroom on Freenode IRC. It also inspired a post in the /r/shutupandwrite subreddit with which the chat is affiliated. You should come check it out. Some  of the best no-nonsense, results oriented writing advice and support I’ve run into.)

50,000 Words in the Rearview

Click to view daily statisticsLast night, I crossed the 50,000 word line. It feels like my story is on track for a decent length, somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 words. I’ve identified some things earlier in the story that require fleshing out, as well.

It’s been interesting, going through the writing process. Things have been changing here and there, primarily to add more subplots and ideas. When I started, I really only had the main thrust of the story in my mind. It’s grown, and I like it.

The main arc that takes my character from a victim to an active agent in her own life has been joined by a romantic subplot, some intrigue and a lot more detail for the antagonists, and an internal struggle with an alien being. A group of characters that had been intended as a footnote, almost a part of the scenery, is now an engaged group of supporting characters.

Writing is really agreeing with me, and I’m getting better at taking the reins and getting my writing done when it’s possible, rather than when I’m feeling like it. As a father, IT nerd and husband, getting “feeling like it” and “possible” to line up is why it has taken me three months to hit 50k words.

I’ve been feeling the itch to do a bit of visual art, but time constraints are really a pain there. I’ve thought about splitting my creative time between writing and painting/drawing, but the fact of the matter is that drawing is a much slower process. I can’t get nearly the same amount of stuff done. (I also think I’m better at writing, but that’s not saying that much.)

Writing Conflict – The War is Easy, The Skirmish is Hard

It appears that I am a serial writer. I thought I might jump back and forth in my manuscript, since I knew approximately what the shape of the story would be. But I haven’t. Each step has led to the next, and I haven’t wanted to jump around for fear of not knowing everything I would come up with in the chapters between.

So now I have done my set up.  I have placed the protagonist and her friends. I have placed the antagonists. I have defined the shape of the conflict. I have fired the opening shots. I have written some interstitial matter that doesn’t directly apply. I know what the final resolution will be to this war.

Now I have to come up with the skirmishes, and I’m finding that much harder. It’s a matter of pacing, I think. I don’t want to be too slow and lose reader interesting. I also don’t want to rush from the middle section of the book through the end in a hurry. I also don’t want to give my villains Bolo Yeung Disease1. There’s the constant threat of deus ex machina to keep your characters alive and hale until the cataclysmic final battle.

This has always been a problem of mine.

It’s caused my output to drop, despite my mental momentum going strong. I have some ideas, now. A few pivotal battles in the war on my characters.

How do you handle it? Do you have the same troubles I do?

1Bolo Yeung, perhaps best known as Han’s enforcer from Enter the Dragon, and Chong Li in Bloodsport, played the villain in martial arts movies throughout the 80s. His character was frequently unstoppable until the final battle, when he would inexplicably lose.

My New Halloween Short Story, “Rap Once For Yes” is now up at WattPad

I didn’t think anything would really happen when Joey suggested we have a seance. I mean, who hasn’t seen that kind of thing in the movies? It’s all old ladies rapping on tables and weird lights in crystal balls.

So when Joey suggested we go to the local cemetery on Halloween and try to talk to the dead, I played along. I figured it was just an opportunity for the two of us to spook the others with our special abilities.

“I think it sounds fun,” I said. “We can wear our costumes and bring candy and stuff. And if anyone else comes lurking in the cemetery, we’ll scare the pants off of them.”

 What the rest of the group didn’t know is that Joey and I didn’t just study at R. Bradbury Middle School. We had classes after school and on the weekends. We were honest to goodness wizard’s apprentices. My mom was a healer and a seer, so I was learning plenty about how to keep people in good working order and find things that are hidden. Joey also lived with his master, but it wasn’t one of his parents. All the other adults just called him Joey’s “guardian.” Joey’s master was a necromancer.

Continue reading at WattPad. There are zombies!

Changing Writing Software, and Status Update

I started off this project using Celtx, because it has an online version and can be synced with their servers. I still like the software a lot, but for one reason and another its benefits no longer really apply to me.

Looking around here and there, I came across a Windows native program that can be run as a portable app. It’s called yWriter, and it was written by an author. I like the way it separates the manuscript out by scene as well as by chapter. In addition, it has databases to keep track of characters, items, locations, etc. It can also be run on Mac and Linux with Windows emulator software, so that’s a bonus.

Progress remains steady but not blazing fast. I’m up to 32,884 words at the time of this writing. That’s darn near half a novel, people!

I went back and did some expanding of a secondary storyline. I am liking where that’s taking me. It’s adding some complexity to the antagonist POV character, and I think the end of his character arc will be changing as well.

I also conceived a scene that I’m pretty sure has to happen, but I’m not certain how to get there. I’m letting it stew a little bit. I don’t want to write the thing and realize later that I wanted it just for the “cool” factor.

In addition to the novel, I’m working on a short story (4000 word limit) for the Reddit /r/FantasyWriters October story competition.

A good week

All told, the last week saw me writing more than 5,500 words. That includes a 1,000 word flash fiction story for Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing prompt. This is the sort of pace I’d like to keep going. It would get me to my tentative goal of 75,000 words in 15-20 weeks. I think that’s a realistic mark to shoot for – an achievable amount of output and an easily tolerable amount of time.

The short story got a surprisingly strong reaction. More than one person said they thought it would make a good situation for a novel, and I believe I agree. So, I may just have something to write once The Apprentice is completed.