Beginnings, endings and everything in-between

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it here — I know I have over on my blog — but I got jumped about 9 days ago with a new novel. Well, new in the sense that it hasn’t already been written. Not new because I knew I had to write it and had planned to get to it this summer. Oh, yeah, new in that this novel doesn’t remotely resemble the book I had planned in my head. Yeah, yeah, my muse is evil but we all know that.

Now, I don’t have time to sit down and write an entire novel out of my publication order. I keep telling myself that. More importantly, I keep telling Myrtle the Muse that. So, I bargained with her — what, don’t all writers bargain with their muses? And no, it’s not like bargaining with the Devil. Myrtle makes the devil look like a rank amateur. — and we agreed that she would get one week, give or take a day or two, to get the basics of the book down. Then I had to get back to the final editorial check and formatting for Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2). Hopefully, Myrtle is going to stick with our agreement. Otherwise, I may have to murder my muse and I learned long ago that’s easier said than done.

And that, in a way, gets to the topic of today’s post. When I first screwed up the courage to show Sarah something I’d written — and, believe me, it took her pointy boots and threatening not to let me beta read anything else she wrote before I agreed — she looked at me, shook her head and told me I had the dreaded “start in the wrong place’ disease. What I’d written was serviceable but I had started about five pages too soon. Then, on rewrite, I started two pages too late. She finally got me to start it where it needed to begin. Then she nursed — and begged and bullied — me through the next few books with the same issues.

Beginnings are hard. You can spend pages giving your reader beautiful descriptions of the setting and what your characters look like. You can start with the day your character arrives in town. There are so many ways to start but, all too often, those ways fail in the biggest challenge we face as writers — they fail to hook the reader. You have to give enough about your character — and it doesn’t have to be your main character. It can be the antagonist or the victim who won’t appear except as a reference after those first few pages. But you have to give your reader a reason to keep turning the page to see what happens next.

I picked up a book a month or so ago that had gotten great reviews. The writing was supposed to be “alive” and “beautiful”. The characters well-developed. The plot engaging. And I should have known better. The opening pages read like a travelogue. There was nothing in them to give me any hint what sort of book I was reading, what the potential conflicts might be, etc. In other words, it gave me no reason to keep reading.

Another book, one I checked the sample for ten days ago or so had the opposite feel. I knew exactly what I was going to be getting by the end of the third paragraph. How? Because those three paragraphs read like the author and/or editor had a checklist of issues and characters that had to appear in the book and they were all listed right up front. It was a grocery list of social issues. Now, there is nothing wrong with having social issues in your work — as long as you make them interesting for your readers. And that has to be done from page one. Otherwise, you give your readers no cause to go forward with your book. You have to get them interested, have them want to see what is going to happen next. In other words, you have to tease them with the reward that will come as they continue reading.

That becomes more difficult when you write series. You need to offer your reader enough to catch them up on what’s been happening, especially if that reader is new to the series, without your first few pages becoming nothing but a synopsis of earlier books or stories. You need to also give the plot arc a push in such a way you readers, old and new, know something important or exciting or whatever is about to happen.

Even now, after more than 10 novels, I hate openings. I have to stop myself from writing and rewriting them so many times they lose any emotional resonance they might have had. There was a time when Sarah threatened to not let me edit my work at all if I didn’t stop editing the life out of my first chapter or two. I try to keep that in mind but it’s hard at times.

So, fast-forward to this book that demanded it be written NOW! It is the fifth book in the Nocturnal Lives series. I’ve known from the last few books that this book would be where several of the major plot lines would come together and life for the main characters would be thrown up in the air and some of them might not come through it. As I said earlier, I’d planned on writing the book this summer for release in the fall. I even had the basic plot figured out, notes taken and some research done.

I’ve worked on the book a little more than a week now. Today is the last day I’m letting Myrtle drive that particular plot line. So far, I’ve written approximately 25k words. So, I have a good feel for where the book is going — well, not really. Myrtle is making this a true pantsing novel. But at least I’m not screaming in fear — or hate — with it.

I even got up the nerve to send the opening sequence to Sarah to look at. Yes, I caught her at a weak moment. In other words, I caught her when she made the mistake of looking up from her computer screen and then I begged. Okay, I begged that she delete the file without reading it (for some reason, I am still terrified of letting Sarah read my work. I think part of that is I’m afraid she will realize she has spent all this time mentoring me for naught). Instead of deleting it, she read it.

Dum-dum-dum.

And said that, for once, my very rough draft didn’t read like I started it too soon or too late.

I even made her repeat it, just to be sure I heard right. Then I did a happy dance. And then I beat Myrtle and told her that, no, Sarah’s compliment didn’t mean she got to stay out and make me write the rest of the book.

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen the scene yet, here it is. As with everything, copyright applies. Also, this is a very rough draft. No editing, spell checking, etc., has been done. All of which means, things may change before Nocturnal Rebellion is released.

***

The bullpen fell silent as Chief of Detectives, Luis Santiago, moved to the front of the room. The look on his face mirrored how they each felt. Disbelief, sorrow and anger – but mostly anger – burned in his dark eyes. Every cop, not to mention every cop’s family, faced this possibility each time they stepped out the door. But that didn’t make it any easier, especially not when it hit this close to home.

Santiago looked around the squad room, making eye contact with every person there. It didn’t surprise him to find more than just the day shift present. He had no doubt were he to check the other squads under his command, he would find the same thing. When a cop went down in the line of duty, no one worried about vacation or sick leave. Every cop in the department would be doing all they could to find the perps responsible. That knowledge made him glad to be part of the family. Even so, it did nothing to make this part of his job any easier. Fortunately, it was not something he had to do very often but even once was one time to many.

Standing there, seeing how each of those assigned to Homicide waited, hoping he had good news to tell them but knowing he did not, he drew a deep breath. He could have let someone else handle this but that would have been the easy way out and he had never been one to shirk the uncomfortable parts of the job off on someone else. Besides, he owed it to them, and to their lieutenant, to make sure they knew that even though he no longer worked cases on the board, he was still one of them. He hurt with them and he thirsted for the same vengeance they did.

“I’m not going to tell you this gets easier. It doesn’t and each of you knows it. Let’s be honest. This squad has faced more than its fair share of challenges the last two years.” He paused and reached up to rub his eyes, burning with unshed tears, with thumb and forefinger. As he did, he felt every one of the last twenty-six hours he had been awake. Twenty-six hours of sitting vigil at the hospital room and then talking with family members, of briefing the chief of police, Darnell Culver, and of doing all he could to head off any interference by the feds. One of his own had gone down and he was damned if he was going to let the feds or any other agency take over the case. Then he cleared his throat and continued. “Each and every time, you have risen to the challenge and done what was necessary to carry out your duties as detectives for DPD. I know I’m asking a lot now, but I need you to do so once again.

“The next few days are going to be difficult for the entire force, but especially for you. You lost one of your own yesterday. I’ve spend a great deal of time with the family and they asked me to let you know that arrangements have been made. They thank each of you for all the time you have spent with them since the ambush. They have asked that, until the funeral, members of this squad be with them. They know you were all family and they will feel better having someone who knew their loved one with them. Sergeant Collins, I’ll leave it to you to arrange schedules to accommodate this request.” He glanced at the squad’s acting commander and she nodded, her expression grim.

‘In three days, we will lay your fellow detective to rest. I expect each of you to be there in dress uniform, representing not only this squad but the best of the force. Show the city that we bleed blue. Then show them that DPD does its job, no matter what. Find the bastards responsible for the ambush and bring them in to face justice.

“It would be easy to seek vengeance. I understand that feeling because I share it. No one, no matter who they are, is allowed to kill one of our own. But we will not lower ourselves, or the rest of DPD, down to those bastards’ level. Find them and bring them in. We will let the courts deal with them and, when the time comes, we will be sitting on the front row of the viewing chamber when they are brought in for their execution.” He glanced around as detectives, uniformed officers and clerical workers nodded grimly. “Do your lieutenant proud and find those bastards before they manage to kill anyone else.”

As one, everyone present turned to look at the darkened office with its closed door and silence so profound it felt almost alive filled the squad room. Then a tall blonde with short cropped hair, her expression stone-cold but pain reflected in her eyes, stepped forward. The others waited, watching as she approached Santiago.

“Sergeant Collins, the squad is yours,” the chief of detectives said. “Close this case before the feds try to take over. We will not step aside for anyone, not this time.”

The blonde nodded. As she did, she blinked back the tears burning in her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

He nodded once and then shook her hand. Then he turned, leaving the squad room. As the door closed behind him, Pat drew a deep breath. Whether she liked it or not, the squad was hers and she had a duty to do, a duty to the DPD, her former partner and her squad.

“The chief’s right,” she said softly. She did not try to hide her grief. Each person in the room, shared it. “We have to work this like any other case but let’s be honest. This isn’t just any other case and it never will be. We will have the press looking at everything we do, questioning each move and every word spoken. Worse, IAB is going to be nosing around.” She held up a hand before anyone could protest.

“Hear me on this. No one likes the idea of the rat squad poking around. This squad has first-hand knowledge how they can twist things to meet their own needs. So, I want every i dotted and ever t crossed in the investigation. Work this case like your own life depends on it because it very well may. We have cop killers running loose on our streets and none of us are safe until they are behind bars. So, when IAB comes calling, you will answer their questions. The quicker we do, the quicker we get them out of the squad and out of the investigation. Don’t play games with them. If they ask or allude to anything that sets off your warning bells, let me know.

“From now until this case is solved, it is all hands on deck. All vacation time is canceled until further notice. If you call in sick, you’d better damn have a doctor telling me you are on your death bed. Work your contacts and get your CI’s on the street and asking questions. Finding these bastards is our priority now. That said, make sure your other cases are worked as well. Don’t miss any court dates but this is our priority. We will find the bastards behind the ambush and we will be the ones to bring them in.”

With that, she strode across the bullpen. Pausing before the door to the office that had been her partner’s she reached down to turn the knob. As she did, her hand shook. A sob rose in her throat. She choked it down. She had to maintain control until she was behind closed doors. The squad was hers, at least until Chief Culver found someone to replace Lt. Mackenzie Santos, not that anyone could ever fill her shoes as a cop or as a partner and friend.

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: CRAFT

Truth in advertizing

Now there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics… and as far as most of us are concerned, beyond that, advertizing. Especially if it comes with ‘But wait, there’s more…”

Of course there always IS more. Usually the parts you find out later, when it is too late and you’ve parted with your money for handy-dandy gutter-swizzle, sexbot and cocktail shaker.*

It doesn’t leave you pleased – but they have your money and they weren’t planning to sell to you again. Their customers don’t communicate with each other and anyway, there’s one born every minute…

Of course there are some trivial differences between the writing world and selling junk on TV. The pay-rates for a start.

The other relevant aspect is you shouldn’t be just selling once. The key to success as an author is building a customer base, building a name. Now over on Tor.com they were busy displaying how not to understand this. You see –according to the genius on Tor.com (I hope he runs marketing for the company) – Paul Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS was a work of genius satirically parodying that nasty evil Robert A Heinlein that the modern literati of sf love to hate.

(shrug) I don’t care if you agree, or disagree, adore the movie or hate it… the problem is one the writer of the article seems blind to, and yet, when you think about it, is behind almost all the adverse reaction the movie received.

If you’re hungry, looking for somewhere to eat, and are really in the mood for a huge steak and fries… and you see a diner offering a special on a 16 ounce rib-eye with fries, well, your stomach and mind start eating that, and full of anticipation you’re in the door. Oddly they ask you for payment up front, but it’s a good price for steak and fries, so you pay up and sit down.

And the waiter brings you a four ounce piece of tofu, vaguely steak shaped with some mung bean sprouts.

It could be the best tofu in town, it could be a far healthier choice than steak and fries – you came in and paid your money because you WANTED steak and fries.

If the diner-owner had put ‘4oz Tofu and mung bean sprouts’ on the specials board, you would have walked past. No hard feelings. If it had been the only place in town open, you’d have eaten it and been glad to have it. If you were looking for tofu and mung bean sprouts you would have loved the meal.

But when you’d been told it was steak and you could and would have gone elsewhere – I hope they have big waiters. You won’t be back. And you won’t be kind either, when talking about it.

If Paul Verhoeven had called the movie I HATE HEINLEIN, or HUMAN FASCISTS KILL INNOCENT BUGS the same people now calling it ‘brilliant satire’ would still have loved it (possibly less, because they enjoyed watching the Heinlein fans get furious), but it would have engendered almost no disparagement. It would also have lost a huge volume of sales to the suckers who believed the advertised name.

The issue for writers – or at least writers who want a career, is you are heavily dependent on return customers. And to make the situation worse, word of mouth by readers, personal recommendation (or condemnation) of a book are for many of us as near as we come to promotion. Yes, I know, the John Scalzis of traditional publishing get marketed. To be fair he promotes himself a lot. But that’s not a starter for most of us: we rely on having written a book readers could enjoy and tell their friends. Which is why truth in advertising is so vital to us: We want the reader to bond to the book – the trivial amount one earns from a purchaser who hates the book (because it was tofu when he wanted steak) especially the share that comes to an author, is not worth the damage they do.

If you’re relying on a publisher for covers, titles and whatever advertising and promotion you may get, there is fairly little you can do, besides add caveats to your own social media promotions “Love the cover of Space Mercenary from my editor at Bor Books – great cover but it doesn’t really reflect that it’s Arthurian fantasy romance. I originally called Kissing Excalibur. If you’re a fan of Arthurian Romance you’ll love it.” You can at least protect your ‘name’ as much as possible.

It’s whole different ball-game if you’re indy and the key here is honesty. Honesty from cover to content. Don’t package a lecture on cis-hetero-masculine privilege as Arthurian Romance, and vice versa: there are people who want either or both, but they don’t want to buy steak when they wanted tofu. If you’re going to steak flavor your tofu, make it convincing. Your chances that they bought something labeled ‘steak’ when they wanted tofu are not good. Trust me on this one!

On a somewhat different track I see discrimination continues to be alive and well, and still is joyously practiced by some supporters of the party that gave us the KKK. David Gerrold told them how to kick puppies (in case anyone didn’t think of excluding and damaging careers of those that dared not sing along with the party line) and now I see it being well applied, by the usual suspects. Voting for different candidates is, oddly, a celebration of democracy, a right pertaining to it, and only totalitarians wish to suppress and punish that. You can read all about Baycon and their shenanigans here. You might want to consider buying Jon Del Arroz’s book to show them how well that worked.


The picture is a link.

Sooner or later, the sf establishment needs to come to terms with the concept of diversity being more than skin deep, and need to reflect opinion, and the demographics of the potential readership.

Or find out what tit-for-tat means. When the demographics are dead against you, it’s a stupid thing to invite.

*I know. Things could be worse. You could have been one of the first 99 customers and got two.

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Scaling the Rim

As we come up on Valentines Day, I want to take a moment to acknowledge all the gentlemen and ladies (and dragons, and other) in the audience who see a hint of romance in their scifi or fantasy and immediately ask:

As The Princess Bride proves, it’s possible for a wider audience to really enjoy your scifi and fantasy, even if it has kissing, as long as it’s worked in well. Who doesn’t enjoy fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, and miracles?

Good stories aren’t split into stories for boys and stories for girls. If you do it right, the guys will find that maybe it’s not so bad to sit through the kissing parts, and the girls will make it past the screaming eels. Besides, it’s always good to slip in there that you should never trust a traitor, even if he is your prince, and that even kissing can be awesome if it’s done by the Dread Pirate Roberts.

I tried to clear that high bar with this book – Scaling the Rim. It’s set on a colony trapped in a crater while the terraforming on their iceball is failing. While the two factions have temporarily ceased their running civil war and are pretending to cooperate in order to install a weather station that’ll warn them both of killing cold coming down from above, things are never as simple as they seem!

It’s got fighting and skiing, avalanches and intrigue, killing cold and uncovering old secrets, gunfights, true love and sacrifice…

You’ll like it.

Never underestimate the power of a competent tech.

When Annika Danilova arrived at the edge of the colony’s crater to install a weather station, she knew the mission had been sabotaged from the start. The powers that be sent the wrong people, underequipped, and antagonized their supporting sometimes-allies. The mission was already slated for unmarked graves and an excuse for war…

But they hadn’t counted on Annika allying with the support staff, or the sheer determination of their leader, Captain Restin, to accomplish the mission. Together, they will overcome killing weather above and traitors within to fight for the control of the planet itself!

Scaling the Rim, by Dorothy Grant

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Filed under FYNBOSSPRESS, PROMOTION, Uncategorized

Gothic Dreams

I had gothic dreams last night. Most likely the product of working on the finale of my novel. Not that it’s gothic at all… For those of you aren’t familiar with gothic romance, it’s all dark and stormy nights, tons of angst, and heroines who are too stupid to live. Literally. I’m not familiar with the early beginnings of the genre, but think Jane Eyre, the author Barbara Cartland, or for that matter, much of the Victorian novels. Brooding heroes any sane woman would look at, slip into the powder room, and climb out the window to get away from.

But none of the girls in these books seem to have the sense God gave a goose. I never read many gothics, and the ones I did read were because there was nothing else. Or, in the case of Barbara Michaels, because I knew her work as Elizabeth Peters and wanted to see… Bleah, no. Looking back as an adult and an author, Barbara Cartland is impressive because she may be the most prolific writer, ever. I’m not sure how many were published, but a quick search taught me that she had 160 manuscripts unpublished at the time of her death at the ripe age of 99. I may not have been fond of her books, but I aspire to that kind of production level.

I’m straying from my intended topic. I did have one, really. The plots of these books were mostly very similar and easy to predict. A girl, or rarely, a spinster on the shelf at the shocking old age of say, twenty, was thrust by unforeseen circumstances from her home and into the cold cruel world. This didn’t bother the younger-reader-me much, I could see even back then that you had to work for a living, and if your parents both died, you were on your own. It seemed logical that governesses would be in demand. Some of the more modern books left me puzzled, since in them the heroine haring off across Europe thousands of miles from home making her living as an art restorer or some such seemed a lot more improbable.

It was the next part of the plot that always left me internally screaming at the fictional idiots. They never seemed to check up on where they were going. I could be wrong, but a major element in most gothics, almost a character in its own right, was the house/castle. If a house, it had to be huge, mostly empty, with miles of disused corridors. Whichever it was, it had to be falling into ruins. I mean, you would think a kindly villager would take our girl by the elbow and firmly turn her around to put her on the train. “Yer t he fourth one this month. That Baron, he’s not right in the head. C’mon ducks, here you go” and she’d be spared a lot of trauma.

Of course, we the readers know she has nothing to fear. This is where the glittery hoo-ha originates, after all, with the *ahem* notorious totally-not-a-serial-killer man suddenly being put on the paths of angels by one look at our daffy-brained heroine. But it’s not love at first sight, oh no. He will likely growl at her, verbally abuse her, and that’s if he deigns to show up at all when she does. Also, what is with the number of time he’s her employer, or worse, guardian, but romancing her is still on the table as a viable option? Most of these books are set in eras when that was beginning to be frowned on. I have to wonder about some people’s fetishes. Nothing wrong with having kinks, that’s just not mine. Makes me want to hit the girl in the book upside the head with the family Bible.

The remainder of the plot usually involves some sort of madness, because you totes expect to find some crazy relative locked up in an old ruin like that. There may be a ghost, or in the more modern versions, the mad relative dressed up in sheets like one. There’s probably a plot moppet in the form of the adorable and very traumatized child from the Brooding Hero’s first marriage. There is always rain, and none of that gentle spring stuff, either, this is driven and cold and will half drown you and of course our Daffy-brained heroine goes out in it.

Finally, the half-dead heroine, saved by the hero, accepts his offer of marriage, the sun comes out, and she settles down to make a happy home in the ruin. Me, I’m left gaping like a fish thinking “Run, dammit! Run away!” But no…

That’s not precisely what I was dreaming, which was more a muddled dark and rainy night at the edge of the sea, a coffin-like box strapped to rocks there, and a mad doctor torturing a pale faced girl who refused to give up the names of the Resistance even as he was closing the lid on her. You can see why I called it gothic. Horrifying, at the least. I woke up gasping and tangled in blankets, and lay there thinking about the appeal of the gothic novel.

Why do readers like that emotion storm? The emotions invoked by reading, or music, are no less real than ones brought on by actual events, they are just less powerful. Even when I was younger I didn’t care for angst, but I did enjoy other emotions invoked by reading. We all know that book hangover, after finishing a really compelling story that has made you laugh, and cry, and wind up in triumph on a high note. Perhaps this is what the gothic readers were in search of. A heroine worse off than they were, in some exotic setting, who they knew would wind up with a happily ever after. I prefer my characters with more spunk and less wet-noodle aspect, is all. Which is why I gravitated to science fiction, in the end.

 

 

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: ART

Breaking through the blockage

Two of my esteemed fellow Mad Genius Club authors have tackled the problem of “writer’s block” over the past two days.  First, Sarah Hoyt discussed “The Curse of the Second Novel“.

Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.

The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract. Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption. As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened.

She offers various suggestions to get over the problem, which she sees as being rooted in insecurity.

Yesterday, Kate Paulk expanded on Sarah’s article in an essay titled “When You’re Lost in the Depths of the Pants“.

Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.

. . .

As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.

This morning I’d like to offer my own approach to the problem – which is pretty straightforward.  I take the literary equivalent of a roto-rooter to the blockage, and bore my way through it by brute force.  If one avenue of approach is blocked, I abandon it and take a completely different one, then turn back from that road and bore my way into the problem from another angle.  That’s worked twice for me so far, and looks set fair to work a third time later this year.  Let me explain.

I’m a combination of plotter and pantser when it comes to preparing to write a novel.  I work out the initial plot and structure in my mind, and frequently set it out in point form in a document.  However, this is never set in stone.  Those blasted characters turn out to have minds of their own (often of fiendish deviousness), and can head off in different directions almost before I’ve realized that they’ve left the straight and narrow path I’ve worked out for them.  I then have to go haring after them, screaming “Come back!  You’re my creation, dammit!  Where the hell do you think you’re going?”  Sometimes, they listen.  More often than not, they don’t…  (Sigh)

Sometimes I just plain get bogged down.  I can’t make the plot or the characters go where I want them to be, and all my efforts feel flat, uninspired, and frankly boring.  A couple of weeks of this, and I’ll be climbing the walls in frustration.  I’ve learned, in such situations, to make that frustration into a spur for renewed creativity.  I simply shelve what I’m working on and tackle something completely different.

In early 2014, I was working on the third volume in my military science fiction Maxwell Saga, which was published as “Adapt and Overcome“.  It wasn’t doing anything or going anywhere.  I spent almost six weeks circling the drain, getting more and more grumpy and irritable.  Finally, one morning, I just said “To hell with it!”, and started writing a stream-of-consciousness document – whatever came to mind, no plot, no outline, no nothing.  Thirty days and 150,000 words later (a third of that being excisions, deletions, insertions and additions), I had a 100,000-word military science fiction novel titled “War to the Knife“.

 

 

It went on to become the first volume of a trilogy.  The second volume, “Forge a New Blade“, was published in 2015, and the final volume, “Knife to the Hilt”, will be published later this year, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

I surprised myself by how successful this exercise was.  I really hadn’t expected that result – it was completely unplanned.  Nevertheless, my readers tell me that “War to the Knife” is one of my best mil-SF novels.  The thing was, by refusing to stay bogged down, fighting a losing battle, I moved the problem onto new ground of my own choosing.  I didn’t let it dominate me;  instead, I dominated it.  I broke new ground, and it paid off handsomely.

I remembered that lesson later in 2014, when I began to battle with another book I was working on. Instead of beating my head against a brick wall, as a deliberate exercise to distract myself from the blockage, I started writing a Western novel – a completely different genre for me (a moribund one, according to conventional wisdom), and one that required a great deal of research to make it historically authentic.  I treated it as an occasional project, one I turned to when I felt over-tired or frustrated from concentrating very hard on the mil-SF novels that until then had been my bread and butter.  I completed a rough, unpolished first draft by mid-2015, then set it aside for future reference if I ever felt that way inclined.

Quite by chance, not intending anything by it, I put up the opening chapter of that Western on my blog early in April 2016, because I was short of blog fodder that day and thought, “Why not?  What have I got to lose?”  To my pleased surprise, reaction to it from my blog readers was very favorable.  In fact, within 24 hours, I received an offer for a contract for three Westerns from a small publishing house.  Needless to say, I wasn’t fool enough to turn that down!  A couple of months of hectic polishing and fine-tuning later, and my first Western, “Brings The Lightning“, was out the door and on its way.

 

 

It’s sold pretty well for a first effort in that genre, and I’m currently writing its sequel.  Look for it later this year.

Finally, another “anti-blocking” effort has led to a similar development.  I’d produced a few fantasy manuscripts during my years of learning the craft of fiction writing, but none of them were much good.  However, the field still interests me, so after the experience of “War to the Knife” and the Western project, I decided to treat it as yet another exercise in distraction when I got blocked on my work in progress.  I ended up producing three or four fantasy stories that I think have the potential to become novels in their own right.  Two of them progressed until I’d written a third to a half of each one.

In December last year, I asked my blog readers to select one of the two for further development.  I put up an excerpt from each novel, and my readers selected the first excerpt as their favorite.  I’ll therefore be finishing that novel as soon as my current Western project is complete, for publication (hopefully) prior to LibertyCon in June.  (I won’t neglect the second fantasy novel, either;  that will be a future project – or I may merge it with the first one and make a multi-volume series out of them.)

Therefore, I offer this suggestion as a way to overcome “writer’s block”.  Don’t get blocked – find a way around the block by tackling something completely different, then come back to the blocked work when your mind’s been creative in other ways.  You may be surprised at how well it pays off!  So far I’ve got two books published out of such “distractions”, and a third on the way.  If this keeps up, I may end up publishing more “distractions” than main projects!

 

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When You’re Lost In The Depths Of The Pants

First, blame Sarah. Her post yesterday started this, particularly the commenters who identified themselves as pantsers (or in some cases, Panzers, which are clearly Germanic pantsers with really big guns. I’m presuming the DD caliber rack-mounted weapons I possess count, and I’m pretty sure there’s Germanic somewhere in the family tree).

Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.

I’m definitely one of these, but maybe not the best person to be throwing suggestions out here, given that I’m coming off several years of dry spell (on the plus side, a long dry spell kills off that pants-kudzu like nothing else), but I can give a few suggestions, ranging from minimal to extreme.

I’ll start with the least intrusive ones (and yes, I did try all of these. They all failed).

  1. Try to push through anyway. Even if your pantser intuition has deserted you and you have no idea where the thing is supposed to go now, try some formless middle stuff where things happen without any real definition (you know, kind of like the middle ¾ of the last Harry Potter book).
  2. If that doesn’t work, try some plot diagramming. If necessary, start at the beginning of the book and try to keep going after you ran into the kudzu by working out what should happen. It might unstick you, it might not.
  3. Take a short break to write something else – but make sure you give yourself permission to suck first. Fanfic can be helpful with this, because it’s a lot easier to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter, because it’s only fanfic. Sometimes the change of scenery/pace can be enough to give you a fresh perspective when you get back to the stuck piece.
  4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 a few times until you get desperate. During this stage, it helps to remind yourself that you personally do not suck even if your writing seems to have transmogrified into a supermassive black hole. Personally, I don’t recommend going this far. Even though I did.
  5. Throw it away and start again. This is drastic pants-surgery, but it can work, especially if you’re not writing something under a contract. If you have a contract and need to turn in the book at a specific time, this might be when you start locking yourself in the bathroom or book a library study room (thanks for the suggestion, Brad!) or somewhere else you can guarantee you won’t be disturbed with snacks, your laptop, and no Internet. If nothing else, Internet withdrawal might push you to the appropriate level of desperation. (Leave notes for yourself to do the research you need later).
  6. Write another book. This option is only to be considered if you aren’t contracted and you have the freedom to do it. When things are this desperate, and the pants-kudzu is that overgrown, it can be more important that you recapture the feeling of a story flowing than finishing the blocked piece. The reason this one can work is the psychological one: if you’re stuck badly enough for long enough it starts to eat at your confidence in all the ways Sarah described. Starting – and finishing – something else that isn’t that book can give you confidence to bull your way through that book later.

As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.

You could also do it the hard way: learn the techniques well enough that you can do what Sarah calls painting by numbers and plot it out in an outline then write to the outline.

Personally, I find that more difficult than any other method I’ve tried.

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The Curse Of The Second Novel

I bring you bad news.  There is a curse on a second novel.  To be exact, there is a curse on a second PUBLISHED novel, no matter how many novels you’ve published before.

I’m not sure if this applies to indie novels, I confess, but I think it might, if you have at least had some kind of success on your first book.  Now, it depends on what success is to you.  If you go Martian-big on your first novel (we should all be so cursed) I almost guarantee that you’ll suffer second novel curse on the next.  But it’s possible that if you never at all expected to sell anything at all, and you sell a couple thousand books, you’ll also suffer second novel curse.

What is worse, you can suffer second novel curse when you have “simply” taken a big leap in sales or in PERCEIVED craft.  I know. Ask me how.

So, to begin with, what is second novel curse?

Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.

The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract.  Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption.  As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened.  (For expert mode try, as I did the last time second novel curse struck, being deathly ill and moving three times in a year.  It’s a treat. Most effective block EVER!)

What causes this dread issue?  Beyond its being your second published novel or a novel after a great leap in craft and earnings?

Insecurity.

Yeah, I can see you say no you.  And that’s the biggest issue with second novel curse.  You always think “Certainly I can’t be insecure.  I’ve practiced my craft for years.  I know what to do.”  And yet it is.

Take me for instance: The first novel I sold was my eighth completed novel (three of the others have since sold, one is slated for rewrite because I crammed a trilogy into 100k words.  Knew I was doing it too.  It’s a long and sad story.  And the remaining four are in a world I THINK I now know how to approach, but which was a difficult sale for traditional publishing.)  Surely I knew the dance, right?

And yet, right after I published Ill Met and got a contract for All Night Awake, I found I’d forgotten everything about how to write.  In fact I was so vulnerable, I let my agent talk me into discarding my first draft completely, and following his outline (more or less) resulting in a book that isn’t necessarily bad, but which is completely wrong for that series and which of all my books published so far is the least successful EVER, this including some duds I published with small presses under closed pen names.

As it was, it took me going to a hotel for a couple of weeks to finish that book, because otherwise I kept getting sidetracked by the smallest things.

The reason was a fear — panic — that the novel was bad.  Why?  Why would I feel that way when I had competently finished eight novels, and my first published novel had been accepted on proposal, and then promoted to hardcover when the full manuscript was delivered?  Why would I further take the suggestions of an agent who really didn’t have any success in publishing, beyond a few work for hire books?

Because it had taken me so long to get accepted and the process seemed largely arbitrary.  I was terrified that the second novel didn’t somehow meet invisible standards I couldn’t even figure out.  (In retrospect because these were largely arbitrary and couldn’t be guessed.  They had to do with mood of the editor, meeting her, etc, than with objective quality.  Traditional publishing got so many submissions that it had to go beyond “It’s a good/publishable manuscript” so the selections would be subjective.) It is human to believe there must be rules, even when we can’t see them, and to panic when we can’t see them.

The second novel to give me “Second novel curse” was A Few Good Men.  Not writing it.  That was easy.  It was written in two weeks, and it FELT RIGHT.  I still think it is one of the best books I’ve ever written and only Darkship Revenge felt as “good”.  This left me stuttering while writing Through Fire, because it felt like a “second novel” and I couldn’t recapture/recreate the feel I had while writing A Few Good Men.  It hasn’t, btw, been markedly commercially successful, but as an experienced writer I know that how well it does is a function of how the publisher treated it, the cover, and well… luck.

I’ve observed several friends, both traditional and indie going through this as well, so I know it’s not a personal quirk.

So, second novel curse, i.e. an unwonted difficulty in finishing the book after some achievement, whether the achievement be in sales, selling to a traditional house, or even a perceived jump in craft exists.

What do you do about it?

1- Don’t panic.  Yes, I know you aren’t aware of panicking, but become aware of it and then stop it.

2- Realize your novel is at least as good as your “successful” one and probably better, no matter how it feels.  We grow by doing.  Even supposing that you’re sick, not functioning, and you have the dreaded cleaning lady’s knee, it’s unlikely to be that much worse than your “successful” novel that anyone else would NOTICE.

3- For the love of heaven don’t let your insecurity push you to the point you take random suggestions from random strangers.  Use your normal beta readers, and don’t cave in to THEIR suggestions unless three of them return the same opinion (without coordination, which means they don’t know each other or you trust them not to have talked about it with each other.)  Even then, be aware you’re fragile and don’t take suggestions without deep thought.

4- Just write it.  To quote Heinlein “They don’t want it good.  They wanted it Wednesday.” Do realize that even in indie the success or failure of your novel has very little to do with “quality” — even what YOU perceive as quality — and more with luck/finding the right audience, etc.  I have indie friends who are baffled by the one of their novels that sells and sells and sells, and my own best-selling-book was a work for hire which bored me so much I wrote it in three days.

5 – If needed isolate yourself, grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and make yourself write.  At this phase, I often go to a hotel for a long weekend, and finish the book. Brad found that local libraries often rent “study rooms” which can serve the same purpose, if you book them from library open to library close.  Just changing the location and isolating yourself is often enough to get your subconscious unjammed.  If you absolutely can’t even look at it when you’re done (has happened to me) hire a trusted structural editor (I have recommends) and copyeditors and do the minimum you can do.

6- When all else fails, paint by numbers.  If you’re so stuck that your normal subconscious creation won’t come online (it’s happened to me at least three times, usually due to illness, but panic can do it too) do a detailed outline, and color by numbers.  This is why even if you’re a gateway writer and an extreme pantser, you studied structure and diagrammed novels (right?) It’s so that you can fill in with hard work when the magic fails.

7- Eschew the pernicious myth that some writers only have one novel in them.  This is a favorite thing for people to tell you when you’re down in second novel curse dumps.  It’s also bullshit.
As with most bullshit there is SOMETHING in it.  The something is that at that point in your development there might be only one book you’re competent to finish.
However I don’t know any writer — most of us have lived and dreamed and talked story since… since we learned to talk — who has only one novel or only a limited set of stories in him.  We are story tellers.  We were born that way.  Eventually some future civilization might find a cure for the condition, but until then, we pour out stories by function of being alive.  If there’s only one story you FEEL COMPETENT to write, either you’re so scared of failing you figure you’ll dress your success in new feathers and try it again, or your craft is insufficient (this happens to those who sell their first or second novel ever-written, sometimes.)  The cure is to study how to write.  I recommend Dwight Swain’s work, though Card’s book on how to write Science Fiction is also excellent and unencumbered by the tendency of later “how to books” to be “books on how to sell to traditional publishing editors right now.”

Now stop dithering and go work already.  They don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.  That means you only have a week.  Stop wasting time.

 

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