Tag Archives: writing

You Call That Writing?

(I’m finally dipping into my backlog of blog requests. This one is from Ryan Macklin.)

I call myself a writer. I’ve had a number of titles over the course of my life, including “developer” and “designer.” I’ve worked on video games, role-playing games, fiction, non-fiction, television, podcasting, and I’ve even written a few programs in my day.1 But if someone were to ask me who I am or what I do, I inevitably say I am a writer.

But here and now, in 2011, “writer” is about as specific as “human being” as a label. So much goes into my work as a writer these days that has very little to do with prose. Granted, I do a fair amount of activities that comprise “proper writing.” I have kept bound journals for years, and I use them quite often to keep track of notes and write down ideas. Every computer I have ever owned has had some kind of word processor on it, and these days even my phone has one. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about grammar, word choice, story construction, or something else related to the craft of writing. But there are so many things that have changed.

  • “Writers are loners who need solitude.” That’s always been an unfortunate stereotype, I’ve found (even notorious loners like H. P. Lovecraft had a thriving community of correspondents), but it’s increasingly untrue across the board. Whether you self-publish, are traditionally published, or work full-time for a company as a writer, the need to be engage in a community (of fans, of other writers, or just other people) isn’t just easier, but necessary. You can call it “networking” or “monetizing a community” or “coming with tribe” or whatever buzzword you want, but it comes down to the fact that being a writer means you need to talk to other people. Period.
  • “Writers write.” Well, sure. But they also market. They research. They learn how social networks work (because of the previous point). They make a website. They teach themselves new software. They support and promote the work of their friends and peers. They struggle with Kickstarter or find an agent or file their taxes. Writers still write, but writers also need to be businesspeople, because the days in which someone else being able to take care of everything are gone.
  • “I’ll focus on the writing, and someone else will make it look good.” More and more, understanding of the aesthetics of the final product is important. What would look good on a cover? What font is best to use? How should things be formatted? In a world where a few mouse-clicks can change the entire formatting of a document, people are less likely to struggle through an ugly manuscript even if the words are strong and powerful. Writers have to think about the visual context of their work more and more, and many times have to create or modify that context themselves.
  • “Writers drink.” Well, that’s still true.

It feels like professional writers are increasingly required to be jacks-of-all-trades, learning a little about a lot of skills and using those to apply back to the craft of writing. While it sounds daunting, it really isn’t. It’s balanced by the fact that it’s easier than ever to get people to read (and buy) your work. Before it could have only happened through a publisher, but now you can upload a document to Amazon and start selling it. The fight isn’t to get it out there — the fight is to get it noticed. And more and more the only person who is going to help you get noticed is you.

I think this is a good trend, over all. We need to get out more, lest we become feral wordmonkeys stewing in our cages and snapping at passersby.  We need to learn a little more about what it takes to get our beautiful work into the hands of others, lest we think that all other disciplines are easy compared to the weighty work of crafting worlds. We need to realize that there’s a whole world out there, lest we come to believe that sitting at a desk and waiting for people to throw money at us is a sound business plan.

I still think of myself as a writer. I just define “writing” a little more broadly than I used to.

  1. That day was long ago, however — I’m in the process of learning how to program all over again.

To the Far West: Writing is Rewriting

Last time I ended up with a shitty first draft. And it was shitty — I changed my mind in the middle of the story twice, I didn’t like the name of one of the characters after I typed it out a dozen times, and overall the whole thing was a mess. So now it was time to make it better.

First off, I should mention that I generally write first drafts in plain text, either using WriteMonkey on the PC, or PlainText on my iPad. I do this because both work well with DropBox (so I can move between software packages as needed), both have just enough features to be useful, and both lack a particular feature — easy ability to jump around in the manuscript. If it’s irritating to scroll back a few pages and check something, I’m more likely to just push forward, which is what I want for the first draft.

At this stage, though, I need to jump around and edit, so I saved the whole thing as a Word document.1 The second draft was very simple — I took the comments I made to myself in square brackets and turned them into Word comments (getting them out of my text), and did a quick readthrough to get rid of grammatical errors and insert styles. Again, this is where the plain text draft helps me — since I can’t bold or italicize in plain text, I have to do this pass to make sure my formatting is accurate. I also found a few more notes of things to correct, and culled a couple of notes that were redundant.

I then broke my notes up into two categories: local and global. Local comments related to a particular scene or chunk of the manuscript (like “make sure to reference the detective’s bag here”), while global comments were things I needed to check against the whole manuscript (like “avoid an over-reliance on eyes,” which is a tell2 of mine). Draft three then was taking on the local comments, and draft four was taking on the global comments. Finally, draft five was an overall polish and revision. Sometimes I do additional polish and revision drafts, but time was running out and I was getting a bit sick of looking at it, so I kept it to one pass.

It might seem counter-intuitive to change small things before large things, but it actually makes sense to me. If there’s a large thing that really needs to change first (like the character’s name I mentioned), odds are I’ve already decided that it needs to change, and I’ll do that in the second draft as I’m working my way through. If it’s really big, I have scrapped part (or all) of a first draft to address the problem, because usually if it’s that huge, I’ve written myself into some kind of corner. Either way, those kinds of problems never make it past draft two, so by starting small and working my way up, I’m fixing more urgent problems, and then making sure that it all fits together nicely later. If I went the other way around, it’s possible that my small fixes would break something larger in the manuscript, and I wouldn’t notice it.

Also, a trick I’ve picked up from when I was podcasting Whitechapel: for my polish pass, I read the story out loud to myself. I have caught so many errors and style flubs through this one technique that I simple cannot imagine writing fiction anymore without doing this step. It takes longer (and in my case, makes your wife look at you a bit strangely), but it really does work.

And so, five drafts later, I have the first draft for the editor. In the past editors have either taken my first draft entirely or made minor edits without needing my input, but I never assume that. I always expect that I will have to do even more revisions based on editorial feedback, which might include going back to draft one.

Writing is rewriting. Lots and lots of rewriting.

  1. I have in the past used other software like OpenOffice for this stage, but I find myself coming back to Word time and again.
  2. A tell is what I call a quirk of style that comes up time and again. Once in a while it’s clever and interesting, but most of the time as a writer you want to reduce your tells as much as you would when playing poker.

To the Far West: By Any Means Necessary

Last time, I talked about outlining the story. From there, I started on my shitty first draft. (Note: Get used to the word “shitty.” It comes up a lot.)

To be clear, I intentionally call this a shitty first draft. That first draft is paralyzing — the act of pure creation is terrifying, and many potential writers have crumbled under the gaze of that empty screen or that blank paper. For a while, I called it a “zero draft” so I wouldn’t even think about it as a draft, but I think that discounts the work that goes into it. Rather, I embrace the shitty first draft, because I have one goal and one goal only with this draft.

Finish it, by any means necessary.

There are lots and lots (and lots) of strategies for finishing that draft, and not only are they often unique to the writer, but they can be unique to the project as well. I generally find that I need a wordcount budget — some figure that I tell myself I will hit to qualify as success. In the past, I have used weekly budgets that I can allocate as time permits, but it had been a while since I hammered on a project with a timeline, so I decided that I needed a small but daily goal: 500 words a day.

This is where the vague, bullet-point list works well for me. With just 500 words, I don’t really have room to mess around. If I want to keep interested in what I’m working on, I have to feel a sense of progression. With the bullet-point outline, though, the small units work in my favor. It’s easy to go “Today, I’m going to write to this bullet-point in the story.” Since I’ve done the outline, I don’t have to worry too much about how it all hangs together or how this part connects to that part — I only have one point of focus. Get to the next signpost. Write to the next stopping point. Get 500 words down.

Finish it, by any means necessary.

If it’s a rough day, that’s all I need. But on days when it’s going well, I sometimes do a bit more, and that’s okay. Over the weekend, in fact, I pounded out over 2,000 words, because I was in the flow and wanted to get to the end. But the flow is also a trap, because I’ll find myself thinking about the story and wanting to make changes. A few times I wrote something in a later section of the story that changed or improved on something earlier, and I was convinced that I needed to go back and correct the earlier material.

But this is wrong. This is not forward progress. Instead, I left notes for myself in the draft in square brackets and all caps — something I can’t easily miss, and which will irritate the hell out of me when I go back to read it again. Here’s an example (which I’m sure makes no sense without context):

[WHAT DOES FLASH POWDER SMELL LIKE? ADD OTHER SENSES. ALSO MOVE THIS TO CORPSE SCENE (OR REPEAT IT THERE), TO ESTABLISH THAT SHE DOES THIS TO DOCUMENT EVIDENCE.]

Some writers point out that if you outline, there’s no surprise in the writing. Personally, I consider it more accurate to say that there’s no problem to solve in the writing, which sometimes makes it boring, but the point is much the same. However, a thin outline leaves a lot of room for problem-solving during the draft. In this story, I had no idea what the murder method was — only who was killed, by whom, and why. I actually had the victim hanged for half the story before I decided to have him shot instead (one of the many things I have to go back and rewrite). A couple of times I intentionally wrote myself into a cliffhanger, so when I picked it up the next day I would be ready to solve the problem before me. Each day meant I had something to think about, as well as a goal to accomplish.

Now I have a shitty first draft. The hard part — finishing it — is over. Now comes the fun part — tearing it all apart and putting it back together again.

To The Far West: Research and Outlining

One thing I haven’t done on my blog is go through the process of creating fiction, from start to finish. Since I’m in the middle of a short story, I thought it would be a good time to correct that oversight.

This is my contribution to Tales of the Far West, an anthology for the Far West franchise. I’ve written for a number of franchises in the past (everything from Vampire: The Masquerade to Red Dwarf), and one of the key things of writing for someone else’s universe is that you have to research. You don’t have to just research the specific property in question (although for some established franchises, that can be a massive undertaking in itself), but you also have to look into ancillary research that relates to the property.

For example, Far West. Since this is a property that’s still being developed, Gareth was able to get me a short bible, and made himself available for questions. If I don’t know the franchise to start, I try to go into it relatively blind, so that I don’t form an idea for a story and then become disappointed. In this case, one particular paragraph grabbed my attention:

Our analogue of the Pinkerton Detectives, mixed with a bit of Detective Dee and more than a smidge of James West from Wild Wild West. Our “citified dandies” who use gadgets and tech.

I immediately pitched the idea of a detective story in this setting, and Gareth gave me the green light. This led to more specific research, including a lot of questions about the legal and political structures of this franchise.

But remember how I mentioned ancillary research? Far West is a kind of Wild West/steampunk setting with Asian influences, so I had to also look into criminal investigations and technology from the 19th century. Luckily, my Sherlock Holmes project meant that I had most of the resources on hand and fresh in my mind (part of the reason I made the pitch, if I’m being honest), but the point was that I had to do a fair bit of reading before the rough shape of the story took shape in my mind.

At a certain point, I had enough details in my head that I needed to start writing them down and banging them into an outline. I am a writer that lives by outlines. I have tried to write without an outline, but every time I end up getting lost half-way through the story and giving up. Every time I outline, I can finish the project. The down side is that sometimes it takes me weeks to get an outline strong enough for me to start writing, and some projects have died in the outline phase. Still, it’s better to have it die after a few pages rather than a few dozen (or hundred).

In this case, I did spend a few weeks just working on the outline. People who have worked with me as a developer have remarked on my clear, thorough outlines, but the ones I write for myself aren’t so clear. The first pass is usually just a hand-written list of details. I try to put them into some form of shape, and notice gaps which I then try to fill. For this story, I knew I was looking at a story of at least 5,000 words, and using the Lester Dent formula, I wanted to have a couple of twists and a couple of conflicts before the end.1 In my notebook, I literally drew four boxes and scribbled facts, twists, and conflicts in each one to make sure I had the right balance. I immediately noticed a very soggy middle and a weak ending, so over the course of a week I wrote it a few different ways. At one point a key piece (the reason behind the murder) popped into my head, and the whole outline fell into place. I created a new SpringPad note (something I can easily get to on my computer, phone, or iPad for refeerence) and write a list of bullet points, covering the key facts of the backstory (since the murder happens before the story starts, I had to make sure those facts are straight as I introduce them), and the three or four things I needed to do each 1,500 words or so.

Then I started writing my first shitty draft, which I’ll get to in another post.

  1. I have a different way of interpreting Lester’s formula — I should write a separate blog on that sometime.

Reading Achievement Unlocked

Achievement Unlocked

There’s been a lot of talk about how publishing has been radically changing over the past few years. The past couple of days, though, I’ve been thinking about how reading have been changing as well.

For a few years now, I’ve been using a site called GoodReads to track the books I read, and a number of my acquaintances online do as well. Before, I used to post a yearly list of books I was reading on LiveJournal, but I like the more social experience of GoodReads. As I’m reading a book, people will often comment on their own experiences on it or ask my opinion, and it becomes a reading club that goes at my own pace. But as I use the site and share my experiences, a couple of things have been rolling around in the back of my head.

First, GoodReads doesn’t really track rereading books really well. I mean, it’s possible to do it, but the site is really geared around reading a book once and calling it a day. As a perfect example, I’m rereading a lot of my Sherlock Holmes pastiches after going through the original canon, but I could really only track the books I hadn’t put into the site previously, or new books that I picked up between volumes. And in general, I’m not seeing a whole lot of people talking about picking up old favorites, but rather talking about the newest and greatest books in their collections.

Second, you can’t really tell how big a book is on the site,1 and it seems the trend in book length is reversing. As reading moves more and more to devices and ebooks, it seems (to me at least) that a long book I would have worked through in a physical book I find difficult to slog through on my iPad. Further, as writers find that having more books for customers to buy means more than having one big book, self-published ebooks are getting shorter and shorter.

Between the two, it feels a bit like reading books are like unlocking achievements in video games. Since it’s harder to track progress by page count, books themselves track progress. Reading five novellas feels like more reading than one compilation of the same five novellas. I’ve actually caught myself tempted to track the individual novels in a compilation such as The Chronicles of Amber, because I want to feel like I’m reading more, even though it’s the exact same words.

Don’t get me wrong – anything that gets people reading more is awesome. This isn’t a screed against how things were better before that damned Kindle, or how things are more awesome because I can read books in an afternoon. But it is different, and when assumptions about how people read starts to change, writers have to pay attention to it and keep those new patterns in mind as they create.

  1. I mean, yes, many books have a page count, but as more and more ebooks don’t have specific page counts, percentages are more common than page numbers.

I Knew Him, and The Play’s The Thing

The Play's The ThingIt’s not often I get to work on a project and actually scoop the people I’m working with, but Mark Truman gave me permission to beat the drum ahead of time, so I’m doing so.

See, Mark’s company (Magpie Games) is working on a Shakespearean role-playing game called The Play’s The Thing. They have a Kickstarter up right now, and I highly encourage you to check it out. Since the project is doing amazingly well in terms of funding (at the time I’m posting this, it’s just passed the 300% mark), Mark wants to put together a little anthology of “what if” stories — ways that Shakespeare might have taken a different turn, or the original stories placed in new settings. He approached me last weekend about doing one, and almost immediately I had a ton of ideas for it. Surprisingly, no one had yet claimed Hamlet, so I snagged it and sent Mark off a short pitch for a hard-boiled retelling of Hamlet tentatively titled “I Knew Him.”

Danny Hamlet is approached by his friend, Vincent Horatio, and gives Hamlet a recording from the deathbed of his father, Don Hamlet. The Don was the head of the Elsinore mob and implicates his advisor, Claudius, as the one who killed him. He demands that Danny avenge him.

Once I get my Far West story done, I’ll be diving into this one. If you’re interested in supporting the anthology and the game, head over to the Kickstarter and give it some love. And by “love,” I mean “cash.”

 

My Addiction

Books
My Addiction

This past week has been pretty stressful. And I’ve talked quite a bit about the impact the past week has had. I’m not going to go into that again.

But since last Wednesday, I’ve been burning through books. Not even engaging or inspiring books, but pure comfort books. A lot of Sherlock Holmes, and a fair bit of some 70s era fantasy. And, for the first time in a while, all physical books.

On Sunday I called my mom. I’ve been trying to call her about once a month or so, and with everything going on I figured it was a good time to check in. She’s doing well, but my uncle isn’t. He’s three days sober again, and it seems like he drinks every time things get stressful in his life.

After that call, I spent several hours reading and writing to finish up my Holmes essays.

There’s a thread running through these points.

The more stressed or depressed I am, the more I go back to the iconic image of sitting on a couch with a mug of tea and reading a good book.1 It’s my coping mechanism, my escape. It is, in many ways, my addiction.

But I struggle with the use of the term. “Addiction” implies some sort of abnormal reliance on something, and from that perspective there’s very little I’m addicted to. I am terrified of and fascinated with addiction. I have seen what it has done to my friends and family, and I don’t ever want to go down that road. I don’t think that will ever happen, but it’s something that I often think about, something that sits in the back of my head. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to a game about blood addicts.

Many writers I know drink and are workaholics. I think this is largely because many writers I know are driven to write. There’s a sense of relief when you write, a purging of the soul. Time and again when I’m upset, I read to calm down, and then I’m compelled to write. In this case, it’s blog posts and ranty, unfocused emails to my other writer friends. It’s a desire to finish up my Holmes essays so that I can point to a part of my life and go “Yes, I have control over that.” It’s finding new ways to harvest this experience and spill it onto the page, spinning straw into gold.

And maybe that’s my addiction, my abnormal escapist activity. No matter what I do, I just can’t stop reading and writing. I’ve just been able to turn my addiction into a career.

  1. Given certain definitions of “good.” Considering some of the crap I enjoy reading from time to time, it might be more accurate to say “a book I enjoy.”