Category Archives: Writing

Bed Making and Other Composing Techniques

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I’m a writer, and I’m manic-depressive… but I repeat myself. I don’t think there’s a requirement for a writer to be bi-polar or clinically depressive or any other mental illness that requires us to spend a lot of time huddled in a blanket fort and threatening to Taser the face off anyone who bothers us (and in my case, that would be my face more than any other), but it does seem to go hand in hand. I think it’s because we as humans like to be entertained, and when you spend as much time alone as a depressive person does, whether by choice or because you can’t bear to move from your spot no matter how much you want to, you have to tell your own stories.

Sometimes, when I’m at the bottom of a supremely low period, like I was yesterday (and like I suspect I might still be) I wonder how I ever get anything done, but I still manage to push through, day after day, in my journal at least, if not in my manuscript and any current programming project. My journal might be nothing more than me complaining about how I not only suck, but my pages of complaints aren’t even written very well, but I still manage to get things down. I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write something every day, I wind up in an endless feedback loop. Being depressed about not writing for a day makes it harder to write the next day, and if I succumb and take two days off…

This post is about a few things, including my return to blogging, my announcement of a new book project, and my pledge to fill people in on it, along with blips and blurbs about what I read, what I hear, and what I do on those days I decide to leave Fort Blanketopolis, but it’s also about how I learned my Mom was right. If she’s reading this, this is where she says “Oh, that’s nice, he’s writing fiction again,” but I do mean it this time. My Mom, a German immigrant who was born a few years after the war and came to the US just in time to experience Patti Page once she knew enough English to sing along, is a lot of wonderful things. And I really hate to indulge in a stereotype, but one set of genes my Mom got were the ones that dictated order and routine. Apparently, she liked those genes so much she decided to keep them all to myself and decided not to pass them down, and I spent a good part of my childhood arguing about how my clothes didn’t need to be folded, my room was okay as long as nothing was crawling around, and as long as my books were in order, nothing else had to be. I couldn’t see the point of a lot of the things she had me do, since everything was just going to get messy and disordered again. For example, I *DID* think it was nice to crawl into a made bed at night, but was it really worth spending a few minutes doing that every morning, especially when those few minutes took away from the little bit of reading I got to do before the bus showed up? I didn’t think so.

Fast-forward to me now, after serving twenty years in the Navy (where everything had to be in its place, but for a good reason: if something wasn’t, it could fall and trip someone on a damage control party or a firefighting team, or float away during flooding, or hit someone in the head, or in some way cause all manner of horribleness to happen) and I’ll admit to liking things in something resembling order. And I do like having a wide uncluttered workspace, since I know how easily I can get distracted. (Plus, I have long arms, and they need room.)

But, since moving into our new place a month or so ago, I’ve discovered the joy of bed-making as therapy. Originally, I started doing it because we had very little in our room at first, and I liked the idea of seeing everything straight and simple and in place; I wanted to preserve the way it looked when we first moved in. But even now that we’ve settled and arranged all of our things, I still find myself pulling down the covers, pulling up the sheets, and making the bed look decent, and I can’t do much else now until that’s done. Even yesterday, when I had trouble doing anything except for staring at the ceiling and wishing my brain would shut up and let me read, I had to make the bed. And after I did that, I was able to sit down and at least write four or five pages on my projects. I’m next to positive that the three or four minutes of routine activity helped jostle my working brain loose from the crowd he’d been hanging out with (the “I suck everyone hates me” brain, and the “read another chapter/ blog post/ funny comment on Reddit” brain are two particular friends of his). And that part of my brain has been responsible for me having a 110-page Part One of a novel, and is pushing me forward on the rest of the book, too.

So, thanks Mom. You were wrong about a few things, like how you think lamb is disgusting and mayonnaise is delicious, but you were right about this.

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Meditative Monday

writers-block-graphic-how-to-cure-uncreative-periods-hemingway

I had a busy two-day working weekend, but I feel good about it. Not only did I make a good bit of money for our family business, I got further in my book project than I would have said I was going to, if you had asked me last Thursday. Today, I have to balance some more of that writing, along with paying a couple of bills, laundry, dishes, and some kid time as well… I was mostly gone from one this weekend and completely away from the other. And, I miss my sister and need to go see her. And my fiancée is still working and I won’t get to see her til Thursday. And I’m about a quarter into an amazing book. And…

All of those are amazing excuses, and also representative of the constant chatter in my head. Toss onto that pile of things my characters are saying about me and my own writing…

What about my scene? When are you getting to my chapter? OOOH, and then THIS part is coming up, and then this one, and don’t listen to what that other guy said, THIS is what really happened, but you should write it like this, and this and…

…and it’s kind of amazing that I get anything done. But, I have that writing mantra on my desktop background, and I’m determined to push out a little more. This book is not going to come easy, but it won’t come out at all if I’m not insistent.

Meditative Monday

writers-block-graphic-how-to-cure-uncreative-periods-hemingway

I had a busy two-day working weekend, but I feel good about it. Not only did I make a good bit of money for our family business, I got further in my book project than I would have said I was going to, if you had asked me last Thursday. Today, I have to balance some more of that writing, along with paying a couple of bills, laundry, dishes, and some kid time as well… I was mostly gone from one this weekend and completely away from the other. And, I miss my sister and need to go see her. And my fiancée is still working and I won’t get to see her til Thursday. And I’m about a quarter into an amazing book. And…

All of those are amazing excuses, and also representative of the constant chatter in my head. Toss onto that pile of things my characters are saying about me and my own writing…

What about my scene? When are you getting to my chapter? OOOH, and then THIS part is coming up, and then this one, and don’t listen to what that other guy said, THIS is what really happened, but you should write it like this, and this and…

…and it’s kind of amazing that I get anything done. But, I have that writing mantra on my desktop background, and I’m determined to push out a little more. This book is not going to come easy, but it won’t come out at all if I’m not insistent.

 

Draft Zero (or perhaps, Orez Tfard)

Lots of smoke, lots of shrapnel, lots of life changes over the last year, but I’m still here trying to put one word in front of the last word, whether or not those two words are friends, regardless if the second word once said something bad about the first word’s mother… DAMNIT, it’s MY project, and I’m going to make those words get along.

I’ll write more about the demise of my last  project, but tonight, I have to talk about the status of my new endeavor. For years, I’ve wanted to write a Southern Gothic novel. The fact that I had only lived in the south for a year when I first decided this meant nothing. The fact that I wrote primarily magic realism or fantasy with modern twists (the Dwarfs with Steampunk technology) also meant nothing. This might be linked to my early, impressionable years spent reading Stephen King and John Irving (New England Gothic, if that’s a thing) and my early writing years with Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. No matter. After a couple more years of working on a lot of different things, including moving and traveling for a living and spending my time with three people weirdly creative and respectful of my introversion, I picked up a pen last August and wrote 100 pages and four chapters about a family in northern Georgia, where I’ve hiked since first moving to the south, and kept going until I wrote into a hole. So I decided to read it from the beginning.

It sucked.

A vacuum cleaner running Windows Vista in the middle of a black hole could not have sucked harder.

But writers are nothing if not stupid… I mean, persistent, and I kept that on the back burner. After sending another project to oblivion, I went back, and thought, “I need to outline my characters and chapters and try again.”

Ten failed pages.

“Okay, how’bout I set this in northern Michigan, where I grew up? Okay, well, where I spent a lot of time about three hours to the north of where I grew up.”

Fifteen failed pages… wait, NO!

The prologue, all twelve and a half pages of it… which somehow emerged from my head after simultaneously thinking of The Brothers Karamazov and The Princess Bride… actually worked, when I reread it. It worked well. I yelped and jumped for joy. Actually, that was the other way around… I live in a house with low overheads. If you’re 5’13” like me, don’t ever jump for joy in such a place. Anyway, there I was, with a satisfactory prologue in front of me, and “Chapter One” at the top of the page.

Then at the top of another page.

Then at the top of a third page, with three pages of blah blah blech in front of it.

I’d thought that cutting out the first two chapters of my original attempt would help. I could start the story where the action started, and only insert those details that needed inserting, something that editing coaches and Lower GI Tract Doctors both advise. But that still didn’t work. I felt like I did the second day I drove a stick shift in San Francisco on a hill in stopped traffic… I was stalled, gunning the engine, and rolling backwards. At least in that case, I figured it out. I learned how to drive a stick shift in about two seconds. In this case, I think I have it.

There’s a writing technique called “Draft Zero,” though I’ve also heard it called “Expanded Outline” and I think I called it “Summary Outline”  myself, once. The object is to write out your story as absolutely fast as you can, skipping details unless they’re immediately there in your head. The result is something like a long outline (like, half the length of your finished project) or a stripped down draft. Then, you go back and rework it into a proper rough draft. I myself have usually called my first draft “The Raw Draft” and the second pass-through “The First Clean Draft.” (If nothing else, it’s clean because all the profanity I sometimes scribble in the margins doesn’t make it.) I thought… maybe if I try this technique and do a Draft Zero, or a Raw Draft for my Chapter, it will…

Well, it didn’t. I couldn’t even get out a sentence.

But something else stuck in my noggin. A lot of things do. By the end of a writing day, my superior temporal gyrus looks like the underside of a bus seat. A lot of it is crap, but just like that bus seat, some of it is tasty and useful. (Hey, I’m willing to try anything to get a book out.)

A few other writers, Margaret Mitchell among them, wrote backwards. Not word for word, but chapter for chapter, or even scene for scene. “What if,” my Muse suggested, “what if you write a rough outline-like raw draft for your first chapter, starting with the last scene?” Because, I knew how the chapter was supposed to end. I could see that vividly in my mind, and there was even a possibility that it was vivid enough for other people to see it as well, leaking out of my pores. But getting there… every time I tried, I just wrote around in circles. But… write what you know, right? And so, I did just that.

I doubt I’m the first person to ever think of that, but I’m definitely glad that I did. I now have a stack of index cards numbered from 0 to -5, and I’ll keep writing them, backing up a scene each time, until I’m at the place I think my reader wants to begin. Each card has about three sentences on it… I didn’t completely fill them up. Next step is to write a zero draft of the cards, probably going in the same reverse order… I still need to work from that ending. But then, then I’ll get to write from the beginning to the end in my manuscript, and for the first time since first thinking “Southern Gothic sounds fun,” I don’t dread working on this project.

It feels nice. Frighteningly nice.

 

 

Book Beginnings Friday: A Suitable Boy

Those who follow me on Goodreads know that I’ve just recently finished the 10-volume amazingly epic (and long… very very long) series The Malazan Book of the Fallen. My plans afterwards were to read a few short (like, exceedingly short) novellas and such, but after flying through two thrillers (The Girl With All the Gifts and the excellent, creepy folkloric horror novel The Black Tongue) I decided to plunge back into the world of large book mansions, worlds large enough to get lost in for weeks. Also, don’t tell my Muse this, but I wanted a break from fantasy fiction. So, I picked up a book I’d read briefly a few years before but never finished, or even got too far in, thanks to a freak New England rainstorm which claimed all 1475 pages as a sacrifice, and I’m already lost in wonderment and memories of my first experience with its amazing wordcraft:

‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas. The wedding-guests were gathered on the lawn. ‘Hmm,’ she said. This annoyed her mother further.

‘I know what your hmms mean, young lady, and I can tell you I will not stand for hmms in this matter. I do know what is best. I am doing it all for you. Do you think it is easy for me, trying to arrange things for all four of my children without His help?’ Her nose began to redden at the thought of her husband, who would, she felt certain, be partaking of their present joy from somewhere benevolently above. Mrs Rupa Mehra believed, of course, in reincarnation, but at moments of exceptional sentiment, she imagined that the late Raghubir Mehra still inhabited the form in which she had known him when he was alive:  the robust, cheerful form of his early forties before overwork had brought about his heart attack at the heights of the Second World War. Eight years ago, eight years, thought Mrs Rupa Mehra miserably.

‘Now, now, Ma, you can’t cry on Savita’s wedding day,’ said Lata, putting her arm gently but not very concernedly around her mother’s shoulder.

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

The book continues on for over 800,000 words of this marvelous, beautiful prose. After the first 50 pages or so, I found myself immersed, flying through the small print as fast as my eyes could crawl over the letters. The characters are rich, the culture both wonderfully strange and hauntingly familiar, and the plot weaves and wraps around the lives and thoughts of these wonderful four families. I will have a full review when I finish, but I have a feeling I will not want to leave this world when I turn the last page.

And as I often like to do, I’m sharing this at Rose City Reader as part of their Bookish Friday Celebration. I’m there right now, but later on, join me at Friday Night Writes on Twitter. (@bovisrex)

Leave it to Angry Robot(s) to leave the door open

So while I was shuffling through my documents and bookmarks yesterday, looking for something  to work on (my current work-in-progress isn’t exactly progressing) I learned that a publishing company I like is flinging open their mailbox and accepting submissions. From 1 December 2015 to 31 January 2016, they will be accepting full-length works of  “SF, F, and a little pinch of WTF.” This means that I might have hope for the two novellas and scattered story fragments staring a rather different uncivilized hero… it’s now time to put these together, make them something that people will want to read, and then smack them over the head until they read it. Err, I mean, publish it and give them the opportunity to honor me by reading my stories. Yeah. That’s what I meant.

If you’re a writer, check out the offer. If you’re a reader, check out their books. I’ve read a couple of them, and they have good taste.

Angry Robot Announces an Open Door Period

Writing Tips: A List that is actually GOOD

One of the reasons I’ve been writing flash fiction (3 weeks, now… maybe 49 to go, maybe more…) is because I’m fishing around the little pools in my subconscious for a new book, and the short bursts of fiction not only help me hone my craft, they’re a way of baiting my hook and hopefully pulling a bigger idea out. And while I’ve finished 8 novel length manuscripts, I’ve only recently learned what works and what doesn’t. So, here is a list of things not to do in a first or second or tenth novel. Yes, I’m guilty of a few.

Top Ten Writing Mistakes