Category Archives: Creative Process

It’s A Novel!

Congratulations are in order for me. I think. I just passed the 40,000 word mark on a writing project, meaning that it is now officially novel length.

Um, no… it’s not the UFO Novel. I’m at 50k plus on that one, and it’s a big project, a long write, and I’m taking a break from it at the moment…

What I’m supposed to have been doing right now is work on a couple of other things that have become pressing in the wake of Drawing Down the Moon being picked up via the Kindle Scout race. First, I’ve slowly been trying to get the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy cleaned up after being OCR scanned and into formats for both Kindle and trade paperback. Then it will be on to do the same for the two Pembroke Hallnovels, putting them both into a single volume to create the Author’s Intended Version.

I’ve also, at the behest of an illustrator friend of mine, dug out an orphaned manuscript from some time ago – a middle grade novel that, at the time I’d hoped would be a child’s gateway to science fiction, without having any ties to those Trek or Wars franchises. It had been sitting quite a while, and I needed to update it for the age of the cell phone and tech savvy young people. The revision is almost done, and then I’m shipping it off to my mighty artist.

But none of those is what I’ve been working on…

Before you jump all over me for this, hear me out. I’m a writer. I can’t help it. This is what happens to us. Lots of times an opening scene pops into my head, I write it down and file it. Sometimes it waits for years before I come back and do anything with it.

Not so this time.

How I got to this moment is a long story, but in a nutshell: near the end of June I got an idea for an opening chapter of something and wrote it down. I went to file and forget it, but the scene kept coming back, bringing friends, playing CDs and making calls to Japan on my phone. As I jotted short chapters in a session or two, I realized that this project was just what I’ve been looking for over the last couple of years: The first in an open ended series of lighthearted crime novels, able to be written quickly because each chapter is designed to be written in one sitting (my writing pattern of late has been one chapter a week based on their length).

I’m thinking commercially with this new project. The UFO novel is decidedly non-commercial, just me flexing literary muscle. I’ve wanted for some time to develop something like this, probably published under a pen name – the idea being that this series of novels wouldn’t be the typical Joe Clifford Faust novel (if there is such a thing), the different name being an indicator of that.

I started writing in earnest in September and crossed the 40k word mark today. Twenty-seven chapters so far. Halfway through for both my projected final word count and final number of chapters. At this rate I might finish it up by the end of October or the first week of November, setting a record of just over two months of solid writing (previous record holder Precious Cargo took four).

So there you go. With a minimum of fanfare and almost no previewing or teasing I’ve slipped in half a book under the radar of most everybody. It’s been a fun secret to keep and a fun write so far, but it’s time to mention it and keep myself honest for writing the back half. Crime Series Novel #1, here we come!

Advertisements

Real or Fake?

jackalope1So I’m reading a Kindle sample of a novel and in the beginning pages a character is listening to a song on the radio. The singer’s name is made up, the popular song being sung is made up, as are the equally unimpressive lyrics1. Then I find out that the singer got famous when she was on a TV program called Popstar! and, well, that along with some of the other problems I felt the book had, it kind of did me in for wanting to read the rest. I mean, why not just say American Idol?2

Why not indeed? I mean, doesn’t Stephen King, who some people praise for his immersive style of writing, sometimes drown you in brand names – Louie sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a Budweiser and a bag of Doritos, and turned his Sony flatscreen on to ESPN, waiting to see the start of the Boston Red Sox game… I think King’s point is to have people believe his creepy stuff could happen in the real world, so he throws in real world stuff in the name of verisimilitude. And it works for a lot of readers.3

On the other hand, you have writers who throw in fakes, and, well, I can’t really explain why. Years ago I was really excited to start reading James A. Michener’s Space, his novel about the U.S. space program. But early on it described a character going outside to look at the night sky “in the state of Fremont” – and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down like a house of cards. I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s a novel about NASA, it takes place in the United States and some of the other characters are real people, like Werhner Von Braun and Lyndon Johnson… then why make up a state fercryinoutloud? Why not just say Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa?

Now there are times when you definitely want to fake it. If you’re an insider to history or popular culture and you want to vent your spleen on the subject from an insider’s point of view, the roman a clef is the way to do it. Just change the names and everything is good to go. And if you want to keep your job, better fake your name, too – Anonymous is very popular among this set, and you can join novels like Primary Colors and Elimination Night4, along with all the attendant “who wrote it?” publicity.

Unfortunately, to me novels like that become a jokey guessing game with no real point. Everyone knows which Presidential candidate is really Bill Clinton, which recently rehabbed rock star grasping for relevance is really Stephen Tyler. if you’re going to this, I have two pieces of advice: first, make sure you have a really good lawyer. Second, if you’re going to fake the names, go all the way. Don’t play the assonance game and make William Clinton into Wilson Fenton (Primary Colors makes him Jack Stanton). Doing that strikes me as being too cutesy and cloying. Make him Frank Stevens instead. And if you’re going to have a cameo by an iconic figure, you have to be consistent and play it out ’till the end, changing his/er name, too. Just don’t call him Rob Snopes.

In Science Fiction it’s easier to get away with fakery. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that sound different in the future because, well, things will sound different in the future. Except when they stay pretty much the same, as evidenced by the brand names that pop up in films like 2001 and Blade Runner.

Still, when you’re in the future you need to play nice. While working on the Pembroke Hall novels, my editor asked me to change the way that I talked about Timex in the book. They were afraid the watchmakers would be offended by things and the lawyers would come out. I made the alteration because she had a point, it was an easy fix, and I didn’t really have anything against the company or their products.

If you’re writing Historical Fiction, then it’s probably best not to fake it at all. Readers of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist partly did so to watch how the characters interacted with a future President who at the time of the novel was Police Commissioner of New York City. They didn’t want to guess which leader Theophilus Rosenfeld turned out to be. The trick to not faking it here is use the real person’s character to enhance the goings-on – a recent episode of Downtown Abbey centered around a meeting with playboy Prince Edward, whose womanizing ways contributed to the plot in an ironic way.

So if you’re going to be real, play nice and be consistent. And if you’re going to fake it, well, go in all the way and don’t be ridiculous about it.

That concludes my thoughts. This is Joe Clifford Faust, signing off from the state of Midlandia.

  1. But then, I’m at the age where most of the lyrics I hear on the radio are unimpressive.
  2. And I have problems with ALL these shows that grind out cookie cutter singers, but I’m not going there today.
  3. See, I can write about King and not say anything nasty!
  4. Which I always thought was a really lame fake name for American Idol. Popstar! is much better.

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.

JCF TV #3: The Case for Reading

Our Novels, Our Children

Like most writers, one of the most commonly asked questions I get from folks who hear I’ve written more than one novel is, “Which one is your favorite?” When I got that question, I used to say, “Whichever one I’m working on at the moment.”

The problem was, people didn’t get that answer. Most of the askers weren’t writers themselves, and the concept of liking something that was incomplete was incomprehensible to them. So I switched answers. I began to say, “Picking a favorite novel would be like having to pick a favorite child.” That tended to satisfy the asker.

But now I’ve hit something that demonstrates to me that maybe – just maybe – the books we write are more like our children than we want to admit.

I’m currently working on programming The Company Man to be read on the Kindle. It’s double duty, as the cleaned-up file will also be the source of text for the trade paperback version. And as with A Death of Honor, I’m doing a little minor restoration on the file as I go, including undoing some minor editorial changes that I disagreed with – but as a professional, went along with.

Now this should be an easy thing, right? Except when it’s not. The file I’m using as the source for TCM is one that I downloaded from a file sharing system. The scan to OCR stripped out all of the formatting: italics and small caps, which I use in my manuscripts without mercy, shrunk em dashes to en dashes, and blew up accented letters in words like cafe and most of the ones used in the book’s “pidgin Spanish” slanguage. It made hash of line and paragraph breaks.

And the last time I read this novel was when it was in galley form – I don’t read my novels after they are published. This would have been in the summer of 1988… nearly twenty-four years ago. As a result, a battered paperback copy of the novel is not too far from me and my Chromebook at any one moment.

Now this should be a pretty tough thing, right? Except when it’s not. And it’s not. I still need to pick up that paperback every now and then, but I’m not having to refer to it as much as I thought. I did a lot more in the beginning, but it’s like the voice of the book, the pacing and the rhythm have all come back to me, and I’m sailing through it effortlessly.

Okay, that might be me picking up cues from things like surviving punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it goes beyond that even. Yes, I italicized titles of things and anything in pidgin Spanish, but I italicize lots of other words for emphasis. I get to a sentence where such a word was, and I think – that word right there I had put in italics. Twenty four years later during which I haven’t done much more than move a copy of the book from one shelf to another, and here I am, remembering specifics on how things were written.

It’s like I know this book as if it were one of my own children.

When I was a kid, I saw a John Wayne movie on TV that was called Without Reservations. It featured Duke as a GI returning home from the war (the film was made in 1946) who has to share a train seat with a woman (Claudette Colbert) on the way to Hollywood because her megablockbuster novel (think Gone With The Wind) is being made into a movie. She’s travelling incognito, so Duke doesn’t know she’s the author… and there’s no love lost between him and her book. They discuss it on a trip, he speaks his mind about why he hates the novel, there’s comedy and romance, and if I recall, she ends up changing the script to reflect her new beau’s preferences.

I only saw this movie once, but here’s one scene that has stuck with me all these years. Our author goes into a liquor store to get some hootch, but it’s in short supply. The storekeeper is reading her book, and she appeals to him to give her some booze because she wrote the book he’s reading and enjoying. “Prove it,” he says. She asks him what page he’s on. He tells her. And Colbert proceeds to recite, word for word, what follows from the point the storekeeper leaves off. Upshot? She leaves with some booze.

The impression I got from that scene as a kid was enormous. Wow, do authors really have to memorize their own books? As time went on and I grew up, I realized it was just a made-up scene, and no, authors didn’t have to memorize their own books.

Only now I’m rethinking that. We might not memorize them, true. But each novel we write is a journey we make, and the only company we have on the trip is… the novel itself, as it grows.

No, we don’t memorize our novels. That’s silly.

But we know these books. They’re with us as they change our lives just by the very act of being written.

So yes, oh yes, most definitely indeed yes. They are our children. Our beautiful, flawed, singularly unique children.

Unwritten Sequels

I don’t know where you come down on the idea of sequels. Cinematically, I’m really tired of them… it’s like proof once again that Hollywood is officially out of ideas.

Not that I haven’t been tempted. With every novel I’ve published (or, as in the case of The Mushroom Shift, am about to publish), I have had a notion to do a sequel at some point in the future. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because I liked living in that world while I wrote the book and need an excuse to return. Or maybe it’s for another reason. I don’t know.

Just to give an idea of how the process works, here’s a look at the unwritten sequels that have crossed my mind that you won’t see for reasons of time, apathy, or considerations more practical…

Caution… Spoilers abound!

A Death of Honor. Payne and Trinina’s story was pretty much told at the end of the book. But for a while I entertained the notion of an untitled sequel that would show what the rest of the U.S. looked like in that universe. The story would follow Bailey as he escaped from the raid on Payne’s apartment building, hooked up with Karol, and then set off on a cross-country odyssey in a search for a new place to call home.

The Company Man. Two different ideas. First, I wanted to play more with dogbrain technology and PATER. I had done that some with a story called Pins that was picked up by Amazing Stories, but I thought there was still more potential there. And I thought Andy Birch was just the guy to do the exploring. The novel The Inside Man would have been the playground for that. And no, Jade would not have returned. But Lucy would be around.

Also, writing The Company Man was the period when I was learning that not everything in my head about the universe had to go in the book. For example, Howard Kessler and Jack Lime were once partners until the former did the latter dirty, as happened to Birch in his novel. The Company Men would have told that backstory.

The Angel’s Luck Trilogy. The trilogy? The one I famously had to step away from during the writing of the third book and take a month off because I was getting sick and tired of the characters and wanted to kill them off a la Stephen King in The Stand? Yup. I had an idea for a fourth book that reunited the characters twenty years later, when May was about to retire and Duke had become a hotshot pilot in is own right, thanks to Reckless Eric Dickson. Never got any farther than that.

Trust. An unpublished political thriller that I intend to release before the Pembroke Hall reissue. This might have been spun into a whole series of novels about tabloid reporter Annie Graham. The second would have been called Truth, in which Ms. Graham had to match wits with a rather unusual serial kidnapper. Hmm, but when the first book doesn’t find a publisher? Perhaps just as well. The world is only so full of five-letter words that start with “T”, which is what all the titles would have been.

The Pembroke Hall Novels. Was almost a trilogy. Toward the end of writing the second book, it occurred to me that there was one more thing to cover – the aftermath of the reign of the Devals. Hollywood, Arizona would find Boddekker happily working for a non-profit when he was approached by Pembroke Hall to oversee the movie being made about the life of Ferman’s Devils. Life, meet the distorting effects of art. Each chapter would have been preceded by pages from the screenplay that was being produced. Shelved when it became apparent that the published books were a bust.

The Mushroom Shift. You’ll get to read this quite soon. Mushroom was to be the first book in the Badlands County Trilogy, with each title following Monmouth during a different shift. Mushroom was the midnight shift; The Horizontal Tango followed him onto swings; and the final volume, The Sierra Hotel found him on the day shift. Those plans went into the bin when the book didn’t find a publisher. And I don’t think I could write them now.

However, I never throw anything away. The theme of Tango was to write about sexual attraction between two characters in an adult manner while conspiring to keep them apart at every opportunity. That’s now part of Drawing Down the Moon. And Monmouth ages in real time – 25 years – to become older, wiser and the central character of the UFO Novel I’m now working on. Incidentally, Annie Graham is a central character also. As is Robert Grinwald, a refugee from Rachel’s Children, a cycle of novels about an alien invasion that I proposed to Del Rey right before I was dropped.

Part of the allure of my writing the UFO Novel was that it was going to be a place where characters from all of my unpublished novels would get to see the light of day. But now, with these books being published by yours truly, it is going to make for a very interesting collision of universes. Are all these books tied together? I’m not saying. Or maybe I just haven’t figured it out myself.

(Incidentally, I have in my files an unpublished short story called Miss February that features a prominent technology from the Pembroke Hall novels, along with a police lieutenant named Monmouth. Got a migraine yet?)

And what about Drawing Down the Moon? It seems to be the noteworthy exception. I have had it done for a while now, but I have no desire to go and play in Ricky and Kada’s world again. Personally, I think that has to do with the quality of this particular project – along with my actually managing to say everything I wanted to say on the subject during the course of the novel. Well, maybe someday soon you’ll get to read it and see what your opinion is. Meantime, perhaps these unwritten sequels will find a little new life in your imaginations – as they once had in mine.

To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.

It’s a really good book.

Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.

Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.

Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.

The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.

The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.

Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.

Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.

There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.

Need more proof?

Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

People love ’em.

Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.

I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.

I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.

But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.