Category Archives: Book Projects

The Inside Thing

The human subconscious is an amazing thing. It can work on things for you while you’re sleeping or watching Gilligan’s Island1, it can plot solutions for you… studies have even shown that thinking about a physical activity has the same effect as actually practicing whatever it is you’re working on, physical conditioning notwithstanding.

For a writer, this can reap amazing benefits. As you’re working on a project, your subconscious can be thinking ahead for you. While you’re busy with that spicy love scene in chapter 13, it’s way ahead of you, making a list of bullet points for the shocking revelation in chapter 19. You may have even heard writers talk about this. When they do, they say things like, “It was so amazing! This character just sprang to life as if he had a life of his own! It was like I wasn’t controlling him at all!

Well , of course they were. It was just a different part of the brain doing the heavy lifting at that particular moment. Or, more to the point, another part of the brain had already done the heavy lifting, and by the time the conscious part of you that controls your fingers on the keyboard caught up with it, it already knew what to do.

[spoilers: A Death of Honor]

Seriously. The first time it happened to me, I was flabbergasted. I was deep into writing A Death of Honor. It was a scene where Payne confronts the man who is running the drug racket in the night club that is the focal point of his investigation. Payne explains in no uncertain terms just what the man’s activities have loosed on the world, and he walks out of the room, leaving the man to stew in his own juices. I wrote his exit and my fingers paused above the keys of my Smith Corona2.

Then it happened. A little voice in the back of my head said, and then Payne hears a gunshot and he runs back into the room and this guy has put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

I said aloud, “No,” because according to the outline on my desk, this character was supposed to live for another 200 pages, tying up some very loose threads as he did.

But the story will be so much better if you do it this way, the voice said. You’re supposed to make it tough on your protagonist, and this will certainly do it. Don’t worry about your outline. Just pull the trigger. You can fix things later.

I thought about what the voice was saying, and by golly, it was right. So I pulled the metaphorical trigger, and the rest was history. I finished the scene, and the next day’s writing session was spent reworking the outline to plug the holes that the character’s death left. I had to kill off a character who was supposed to be alive at the book’s end on order to do it, but yeah, the book was certainly better for it. All because my subconscious blazed the trail for me.

[/spoilers]

Having worked with such an interesting creative partner for many more years, I have come to the conclusion that the subconscious operates not just on a plotting level, but on one that can effect the mechanics of the book itself.

I remember writing A Death of Honor and looking at the manuscript pages thinking, Hmmm, is it my imagination, or is this moving slowly? I thought about it a bit more and decided yes, the plot was where it needed to be. I began to picture the plot of Honor as a long tail in reverse, where the action was slow to build, and then suddenly reaches an exponential rate until things were happening so fast the reader wouldn’t have the time to catch breath until it was over. That was pretty much the way the book turned out, and it’s why I don’t get upset if that book gets a review saying that the book starts off slow and plodding. It’s supposed to be that way.

What is interesting is that I’ve realized this whole act of conceptualizing the structural parts of the book can be internalized, a kind of set-it-and-forget-it thing. After I had the chat with myself about the plot progression, I didn’t worry about it, and the book turned out just the way I wanted in that respect.

I also did this with the Pembroke Hall novels. I originally saw (and who am I kidding, I still do) the project as one long novel that would be a rise and fall story, and that it would take a dark turn at the halfway point of the plot. This is just how the book turned out, and it’s why I was hesitant when Bantam requested that it be split into two books. It meant one would be funny and satirical, and the other would be funny, satirical and unremittingly dark. A lot of the reviews of the second book, by readers of the first, bore this out, commenting on the shift in tone between the two. But hey, at the time I needed money more than I needed artistic integrity.

Currently, I have done set-and-forget on my latest project, the UFO Novel. As I was putting together the plot elements, I saw it playing out in four acts, and I knew it would take a lot of time to get the pieces in order. After much thought, I visualized the book as coming in between 250 – 300,000 words. The first part, which opens with a mysterious event and proceeds to introduce all of the main players, plays out over 45,000 words – the length of a novel3. The next two parts will be novels in themselves, 100k each, with the last act coming in at 10,000 or less. Yup, the book seems to be right on track. Nope, I’m not splitting it into two. Or three. (Self-publishing can give you the luxury of artistic integrity).

These are the kind of things that gave rise to tales of Muses in the days before reason, and it’s fascinating to me that so much of the process can be analyzed and then internalized, turned over to another part of the brain that is operating in silent mode until it’s time for it to pop up and take control of the fingers.

The big mystery is that I don’t know how I cultivated any of this, so I can’t tell you how to do it for yourself. But I know other writers do it, because I’ve heard them talk about the process. It’s just another reason why aspiring writers need to apply posteriors to chairs and commence with the writing. And continue writing. And writing and writing and writing…

Because if you start building, it will surely come.

And when it does, it will bring amazing surprises with it.


1 Not much difference there.
2 The brand name of an archaic device once used for speedily putting text down on paper.
3 For perspective, NaNoWriMo asks that your finished product be 50,000 words.

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Thinking About Thinking

I’ve had a chance to do a lot of thinking lately. Okay, technically we think all of the time. I mean creative thinking. After being a bad master for a number of years, I’ve started to walk the dog for a half an hour or so on most days, and having nothing to clutter my thoughts, I’ve been mentally making, um, mental notes on a future novel project.

The thing is, these notes haven’t been for 8000 Days, which is the next book I plan to finish writing. But I haven’t been thinking about that one. And I haven’t been thinking about the UFO Novel, which is the big project that will follow.

No, I’ve been thinking about a whim I’ve had for a number of years, and it has been taking shape rather nicely on these walks.

But why haven’t I been thinking about the book – one that I’ve got about 1/3 written – that I’m about to start work on? I suppose because it’s such a slight thing. I know where it’s going, I have one-sentence descriptions of what is to happen in each of the remaining chapters, and each of those chapters is pretty much set in my head. There’s not much left in the way of mental gymnastics to perform.

So why haven’t these mental gymnastics covered the UFO novel, which may be my biggest novel yet, and certainly has a lot of blanks to be filled in? It could be that I’m not ready to write it yet. But I doubt it. I’ve got tons of notes, handwritten, typed, odd .doc files here and there, most of which have been incorporated into the book’s Scrivener file. Maybe because the idea has reached critical mass and I’m at the stage where I need to begin actually writing in order for the blanks to be property filled in.

But this notion of working in a genre that I’d never had much interest in, never wanted to work in, and that would involve far more up-front research than I usually perform?1 I don’t know. I thought I was over that whole crazy writer thing.

Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to engage in unbridled, uninterrupted thought.2 See, if I were to list out the times/places where I tend to engage in the most independent creative thought outside of sitting at the keyboard, it would probably look something like this:

  • Driving/Commuting
  • Shower
  • Repetitive/mundane physical tasks (e.g. mowing the lawn)

Unfortunately, most of these have become compromised over the years. The price of gas has seen me carpooling with my wife, so conversation fills the car there. Even so, my car thought was waning because of my heavy use of the iPod. When I listen to music, I do it rather intensely, and it occupies my mind rather completely.3 Having a spouse and two children long ago put an end to the extended creative sessions in the shower, and allergies put a premature end to the lawn mowing.

To make up for this I developed a method of enforced creative thought where I consciously pick a topic and send my imagination down the resulting alleyway. It’s serviceable enough – so much so that I sometimes teach this method to groups – but it lacks the joy one gets from just letting loose with imaginative thought.

And perhaps that’s why my mind has wandered in the direction it has gone… simply because it can.

Whatever the case, it has taught me this: that it is good for creatives to be able to make such flights of fancy. They’re an important part of the process, and I’ve missed them.

But why… oh, why… that idea?

  1. I prefer to do what I call “on-going research”, wherein I simply read about things that interest me, and, well, if the shoe fits…
  2. Except for that close call with the skunk.
  3. While I can listen to music while I write, I cannot listen to complete albums by the likes of XTC and Elvis Costello. Their superb use of wordplay is just too good – and too distracting.

Life in Slow Motion

Yeah, it’s been slow but happy. Maybe these are the salad days. My wife and I are almost empty nesters now, with our son in China and our daughter in college. I’ve started walking the dog and occasionally picking up the guitar again.

Meantime, things are slowly gearing up to do something. I’ve been working on the 2010 VBS play. It’s been slow going this year – it’s my fourth one in five years and I think I’m going to need a break next year, just to get caught up on putting all the revisions from the previous shows into the computer and then figuring out how to get them out into the world.

On the long, long, long delayed and that’s the end of the news front, I finished the third draft last weekend – finally! It’s right now sitting while I have my First Editor (my wife) take a look at it. Also employed will be my new Second Editor, my daughter, who is a budding writer in her own, um, right.

There are some other writing projects on the horizon, too. For some odd reason, I dug out a book I was writing my hand in a series of notebooks over my lunch hour during 2005. I got almost 200 handwritten pages before I got too busy to deal with it and it got filed away. I found it while looking for tax records and decided to pull it out and have my First Editor take a look at it.

I’ve also been slowly outlining a Big Book, this one the UFO Novel. Not sure when I’ll get started on that one. Depends on the schedule for finishing and/news and the hunt for a new book agent.

So it’s going. Just not as fast as I want. But hey… there’s that whole salad days thing.

And on an unrelated note, a big “Hello” to anybody who may be joining this feed from Amazon.oom. I finally broke down and am in the process of compiling my Amazon Author’s Page, and the RSS of this very blog will show up there from this point on. If I clicked the right button.

Burned, or, Why I Watch TV Now Instead of Writing

A couple of years ago, I started writing a comic mystery novel. It would have been the first novel in a series, and I was planning for each book to have a central mystery, with a long-term story arc that would stretch across ten books or so in the series.

My protagonist was an American secret agent who had just been laid off. Stranded in New York with no marketable skills, he takes to solving crimes for under-the-table payments in order to get by.

A couple of chapters into it, I told my agent what I was up to. He was unenthusiastic. He didn’t like the plot, and didn’t like the idea that the proposal was for a series character. There were probably some other gripes, but those were the main two.

So last night after The Starter Wife finished up (and I’m comfortable enough with my masculinity to admit that I watched it with my wife and rather enjoyed it), a new program starts up. It’s called Burn Notice. Guess what it’s about?

Secret Agent? Check.
Unemployed? Check.
Turns Private Dick? Check.
Cash Payments? Check.
Loopy Ex-Girlfriend? Check.

It even started the way I started my novel, with the agent out on one final job that turns into hash. Only in the TV series, the agent’s life was derailed in the middle of things, and the why seems to be the ongoing mystery. In mine, the way he handled the job was enough to prove that he was no longer relevant, and his life went into the toilet during his debriefing.

Ah, well. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

So, more pages for kindling. I wish some folks would just shut up and let me write. Or at least take some of my ideas seriously.

Or maybe I should just ignore people and write anyway. There’s no terrible sin in having a closet full of unsold manuscripts, I suppose.

Listening: “Right Through You” – Stan Ridgway (Partyball)

The Next Move

So over the holiday break I’ve been making tiny mental deposits about A Father Christmas, but I’m thinking that the reworking of the script is going to take longer than the six weeks or so that remain for me to get it in during the month of February. There’s lots of work to be done, and given the way that my writing time tends to evaporate anymore, there’s just no way I’m going to make it – especially since I’ve got to rethink so much of the way the story unfolds. So for the moment the show is on the back burner, but now my directoral bow probably won’t be until 2008.

With that delay – or should I say creative procrastination – in mind, the end of the year finds me pondering what my next creative move will be.

Here’s one of the things I’m thinking about. Around last year at this time I was thinking about playing out for a second time – and perhaps more. I’d even flirted with the idea of playing out once a month. But I haven’t played out at all this year. And while I was working on this year’s two principal projects, A Father Christmas and The Terrible Misfortune, my songwriting pretty much fell off the face of the earth, after a fairly productive 2005.

Hence, one of my thoughts is to take a year off of writing and work on my music – songwriting, performance, singing, and just general practice and learning more on the guitar. I thought of doing this because within a couple days of finishing work on A Father Christmas, songs started coming out of me again.

A couple of other things. Since discovering Lulu.com,I’m thinking about self-publishing The Mushroom Shift again.

I’d e-published it several years ago, and did it, as it turns out, just a couple of weeks before the outfit I’d chosen to do it changed their business model and got out of that part of the business. Going with Lulu would give folks the choice of getting the novel as an electronic file, or, thanks to the magic of print on demand, as a traditional book. It would also be available through places like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.

(Not that this is a huge undertaking. I’ve got all the files for the publication project, and I could probably do it in the space of an afternoon. But I would have to make some kind of ongoing effort to promote the book.)

Then there’s book projects, always looming. Deadline, which I’m about a third of the way through, and and that’s the end of the news, finished in first draft and idle for three years, waiting for revision. Add to these the notion I’ve had to blog a novel as I write it, letting all of you folk out there read and comment on it as I go.

Of course, a year is a long time. I could combine work on a number of different things, say, publish The Mushroom Shift, then work on the music while tinkering with an appealing book project. It’s just a matter of sorting out which and what and when.

I’ve got a few days before the new year to think about it. And technically, I don’t have to start anything smack at the start of 2007. It’s just a convenient time to do it, but I don’t know that I’m all that obsessive about the the timing.

Or maybe I’ll just do nothing for a year.

Well, I’ll see what my subconscious has to say about that.

Listening:
the TV set

(written by hand with the lap desk and using The Pen. More about The Pen in a couple of days)

Miscellaneous Methodologies

Yesterday I got three more chapters into the outline, putting me up to Chapter 10. One of these is really vague, a chapter meant to put some space between one episode and another. My sole note for this chapter is, “A feel-good filler chapter. A week should go by.” I don’t know what I’ll do for it yet, but as things develop, I’m sure I’ll come up with something. I’m sure the dictates of the plot will take care of that for me, or some things could be set up that might come in handy later in the series. I’ll depend on The Filler Effect to take care of that for me.

Along with those three chapters, I also wrote some snippets of scenes and dialogue under the respective chapter headings, and then I got to a sticking point with the plot. I wasn’t sure quite where to go next. So I dug out one of my old tricks , which I call plot mapping.

Usually when I do this, I plot map by making boxes for each character, and then interconnect them with lines, each with a word or two that describes their relationship. Looking at relationships in this way can help you see things that you can exploit in moving things along – or even resolving things for the end.

Yesterday, though, I tried a more linear approach. In this version, events were in a series of chronological boxes, with notes telling me things like bits of dialogue, or more importantly, whether these things happened on or offstage within the book. Without the boxes, it might look something like this:

HERO gets apt and learns of landlord’s dire situation >>> HERO offers to do landlord a favor >>> HERO tries to do LL favor and gets in trouble with COP >>> COP remembers HERO from Desert Storm >>> COP and HERO have a few beers

This is an event-by-event form of mapping, not chapter-by-chapter. One thing it can do is help you see things like climactic points at which to insert chapter breaks. For example, breaking after the hero learns about the landlord’s dire situation is not the cliffhanger that you get with ending a chapter with the Hero’s promise to help. And the whole bit where the hero gets in trouble may be a chapter unto itself. So if you put in notes for chapter breaks, it might look like this:

(Ch. 3) HERO gets apt and learns of landlord’s dire situation >>>HERO offers to do landlord a favor >>> (Ch. 4)HERO tries to do LL favor and gets in trouble with COP >>> (Ch. 5) COP remembers HERO from Desert Storm >>> COP and HERO have a few beers

(Keep in mind that I don’t do this with every book. Each project is different, and I use different tools to get through it, depending on what my situation is at the time.)

I should also note that this still didn’t get me all the way through the book – although it did (with some influence from the Terry Brooks book) give me an idea for the suitably exciting ending that I was looking for yesterday. However, I got stuck in mapping the plot when trying to get from Chapter 10 to that thrilling moment, so I decided to take an alternate route: I started with the end and began to work backwards toward the point at which things ground to a halt. Maybe today I can get the two to meet up.

I also did a little research. I went to Borders and picked up a copy of Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum novel, One for the Money. Yeah, I know, I panned Hard Eight, but I still recognize that I can learn something from Evanovich. Besides, I might like this one. My intent is to not only read it, but take it apart to see how she structured the book – not merely in terms of plot , but in physical terms as well.

For example, looking at the paperback, I intuited that the book would run about 90,000 words. I did a rough word count, and One for the Money clocks in at approximately 91,000 words. This is good news for me, since my novels typically run about 100k words. There are 14 chapters, which means 6500 words per chapter. That’s roughly 30 manuscript pages per chapter. This is good news too, since my chapters typically run 20 – 30 pages.*

Knowing the physical structure of a novel can be useful in the following way. Assuming that CMS (Comic Mystery Series) #1 will be 90,000 words in length, and knowing that I wanted to have this project so thoroughly mapped out that it can be written in 90 days, that tells me that I need to write 1000 words a day – roughly five pages. This is a good thing because it’s the goal I try to keep when working on any project.

Of course, on a normal project, I give myself two days off a week, which means that a) I’m going to have to write a little extra each day, or b) I’m going to have to knuckle down and write five pages every day, no matter what.

I’ll see which one works.

Meantime, I’m going to put together some kind of schedule for my little impossible dream. I’m giving myself a deadline for having some kind of detailed outline for the book in place – the day when I start taking class again (a day class this time out – hopefully without the same time drain I had this summer). This would put a target date for completion of the manuscript on… oh, let’s use my traditional (and never met) finishing date of Thanksgiving. A month or so to edit and whip the book into shape over the holidays. In the mail by January 2005. Can I do it?

Well, I do this sort of thing to myself all the time. The law of averages has to catch up with me. Maybe this will be the time I screw up and actually make my self-imposed deadline

* Based on roughly 200 words per manuscript page. Your mileage may vary depending on font style and whether the page contains lots of description or lots of dialogue.

Alternatives

Alternative options seem to be the theme recently. Yesterday my wife and I were talking about the Deadline project, and even though she hadn’t yet seen any of it, I’ve discussed some parts of it with her. So she was telling me an idea she had for the way the book should end. It wasn’t what I had in mind, but it did put the thought in my head that maybe I should write two endings to the book to see how they fit (hey, I recently saw where the DVD of 28 Days Later has not one, not two, but three alternate endings on it – guess the director couldn’t make up his mind how to end the tale).

Lest you think I’m blindly following what my wife says because she’s my wife – she has great editorial instincts. It’s my contention that she could have been a brilliant book buyer and editor. But she’s told me she would have hated that kind of work.

Here’s an example of her instincts at work. As I have mentioned, she reads most of my manuscripts chapter by chapter as they are written. When I was working on A Death of Honor, she made a comment to me after reading one of the early chapters: “I think Trinina is an interesting character. I can’t wait to see what you do with her.”

Indeed. What she had read was the only scene I planned for Trinina to be in. But after that comment I started thinking about Trinina and how she fit into Payne’s complacent little world, and well, it wasn’t long before she showed up at his doorstep, looking for help after having done something very, very illegal. It put a real complication in Payne’s life, moreso than what was already happening to it, and A Death of Honor was a much better novel for it.

That’s why I trust my wife’s instincts. That’s why I’m thinking about writing two sets of last chapters for Deadline.

Meantime, today I also thought of an alternate title for And/News. You’ve probably already deduced that And/News is my writer’s superstition name I’m using for this project (it was my original title for this book). I have another title I plan to market the book under, but if there are problems with that – there is a non-fiction book with the same title – then I thought I ought to be prepared. If a problem comes up, I guess I could revert to …and that’s the end of the news; but I really liked this alternative title. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t pay off until the last chapter – although it could work.

Maybe I’m worrying for naught. But it helps to be prepared. A Death of Honor was originally titled Amendment XXXI, but DelRey asked for it to be changed because, as my editor said, “it sounds too political.” I racked my brain to come up with a title and came up with a bunch of losers. I decided to come back to it and sat down with my son at the kitchen table and started playing with Play-Doh. A Death of Honor came to me about a minute later. And I had to come up with Handling It… as an “all encompassing series title” for the Science Fiction Book Club. So there is precedent.

Thus were today’s distractions. Now onto business:

Today’s Scorecard
Deadline – Chapter Five
174 pages (+6)
19,488 words (+ 672)*

And/News – Chapter Twenty
667 pages (+7)
146,922 words (+2700)**

NP – iTSP (Ben Folds Five, “Underground”)

*Word count for Deadline is approximate – the project is being written by hand.

**Today’s word count is inflated by about 1,000 words due to cut-and-pasting from the Reconciled Outline.