Category Archives: The UFO Novel

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.

A Chat About Place

I’m going to try something here. A few days ago, a friend of mine who has decided to try and write a novel popped up in my chat window to ask a couple of questions. Instead of writing at length about the subject, I’m going to just put the transcript here and see what happens. If you have any questions or followup on the subject, feel free to comment:

Brian: how much detail do you put in your environments?

Brian: I sprinkle some of it here and there, but don’t go overboard

me: depends on how important it is to the story

me: the next novel I’ll be converting for Kindle [The Mushroom Shift]

me: is set in Wyoming in the winter

me: and the setting and the weather play an important part of the story

me: it’s oppressive to characters in an already oppressive situation

Brian: how do you pick cities for your stories?

me: well

me: if you’re Stephen King you stick to places where you’ve lived

me: ; )

Brian: I am going to just use this area… I can change it later if I want

me: I tend to pick places that I think are interesting

Brian: there are a million of those types of areas

me: What suits the story? The Company Man and Drawing Down the Moon are both travelogues of sorts, bouncing around different versions of the US. The shifting locales helped shape the stories.

me: Sometimes the story dictates the location – Wyoming for The Mushroom Shift, New York for the Pembroke Hall novels.

me: Then sometimes it doesn’t matter. When I wrote A Death of Honor, I deliberately did NOT mention a specific city, and have had people assume it was New York, LA, etc.

me: There’s another book I’ve gotten a lot done on that is set in a Canton-like milieu, and needs to be that way for a couple of reasons. And the UFO novel has to take place in Gillette, Wyoming because Gillette is the perfect place for it to occur.

Brian: My story will take place in a canton like area.. more rural though…

me: See? Based on what you’ve told me, it needs to set there. It’s dictated by the story.

One thing I will add that I didn’t say in the chat is that sometimes Place can be as much a character as any of the people in your novel. I’m thinking of films like Body Heat, Do The Right Thing, and just about any movie by the Coen brothers, who have taken Place As Character to a whole new level.

Have I missed anything? Grab your atlas and check.

Curious Affectation

Okay, somebody explain why in the heck I do this.

It’s something I’ve been conscious of for years, and it never seemed to bother me until a week or so ago. That’s when I got an email that inspired this recent post. At one point, the correspondent said,

I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.

To which I replied, “Yeah, I do that, too.”

And I do. Especially if I’m not working on a novel. An old idea bubbles up, or a couple of notions collide with each other to become an idea, and all of a sudden my brain is saying, This is it… workable novel idea.

What happens next is that I wander into the nearest grocery store, drug store or office supply outlet and buy a notebook or a notepad or a ream of blank paper. And if I don’t have a Pilot G-2 handy, I buy at least one of those, too.

Then I sit down and start writing the book, by hand, because dang it, I really can’t help myself.

I’ve started a great many books this way. Some of them have even been finished – The Mushroom Shift, for example. I’ve got about 20 handwritten pages of the UFO novel that I hope to pick up and start Officially Writing soon. I’ve got almost 200 pages of another novel spread over three or four notebooks that I need to pick up and finish at some point in the future. And I’ve got a ton of one, two, three, four, five page starts laying here and there, ideas begging to be fleshed out with another 500 pages of text.

Since getting the email the other day, I was amused to find out that I wasn’t the only one who did that kind of thing, reading into his words the fact that he indeed underwent the same tortured process I went through.

But I started to become unhappy about it. Because I still don’t know why I do this.

No, it’s not a passing thing. After lunch with my wife and mother-in-law this afternoon, I found myself in a Walgreen’s in that aisle because two notions collided – one of which was a bit I had written one paragraph of on another sheet of paper – and it wanted to come out.

So I weighed my options. I’ve been writing on a pastel green printer paper of late – it’s easy on the eyes. But Walgreen’s only has white. I pass over the spiral bounds – got too many of them at home. Ditto the yellow pads. Never was much for off-size stuff, either, although I used to draw in Steno notebooks.

Ah, there it was! A 120 sheet pack of looseleaf paper, college ruled, on sale for 97 cents. And I have plenty of three-ring binders at home! Huzzah! The planets have aligned!

But why do I do this? Not just sometimes. A lot. It’s like part of my personality or something. A behavior pattern.

I’ve tried to do some quick self-psychoanalysis since this started bugging me and have come up with a handful of maybes on why I behave this way:

Continue reading

Something is Happening

Okay, it’s finally time to say something because it’s all getting close.

I’m in for a writing career reboot here, and it’ll likely all start happening by the end of the month. The retooling of this web site some months ago was the first step, but now there are others. I’ve slowly been putting things into motion, but it looks like they’re all going to converge at once.

So I have not one, but two major announcements — and a minor one.

First, my new novel, …and that’s the end of the news, is almost done. I mean it for sure this time. After 10 years, a long hiatus to take care of my mother (during which time I tried to re-imagine myself as a songwriter and learned that I hated performing live) and four drafts, I’ve gotten the book where I want it, where it should be. So it’s soon to be going out in search of an agent and/or publisher.

This book has been with me for so long that it’s hard for me to look at it as “the new book”, but it’ll be new to the 99.99% of you who haven’t had some kind of preview or were pressed into service as an early reader. Anyway, once and/news goes out into the marketplace, it will be time to start what really will feel like a new novel. This will likely be the project that I have discreetly code-named “The UFO Novel.”

Which brings me to the minor announcement. Just for grins, I thought I would post very short excerpts from The UFO Novel as status updates on my Facebook Fan Page. There’ll be one excerpt from each chapter as I finish writing it, and there will be lots of chapters. It should be fun. Or not. Tantalizing, perhaps? That’s the idea. So become a fan now and get miniscule glimpses of a book in progress (or be tormented by them – your choice).

So now it’s time for Major Announcement number two. If you’re one of the lot who has been to my Facebook Fan Page, you may have seen the fanciful logo for an outfit called Thief Media (you can see it now in the upper right hand section of this page). That’s the imprint that I have started to release my old, out-of-print novels for the Amazon Kindle and in epub format for all the others. This will begin with my first published novel, A Death of Honor – which I hope to have out by early March – to include all 7 novels over the course of the next year or so.

(Actually, they will appear as only 6 novels – Ferman’s Devils and Boddekker’s Demons will be issued as one novel, which was my original intent.)

A Death of Honor's new look for the e-book market.

All of the novels will have new cover art, and all except for the Angel’s Luck trilogy will have some kind of bonus material included. A Death of Honor will feature the original epilog that I cut from the book before publication. The Company Man and Ferman’s Devils will feature short stories that overlap into the respective book’s universe.

In addition to my out-of-print titles, Thief Media will also be releasing two previously unpublished JCF novels. The Mushroom Shift is a profane and darkly funny novel about police work that was written between Honor and Company and will be released between them. Trust is a political thriller written in hopes of being published in time for the 1996 election. It will be released before Ferman’s Devils.

To celebrate this in a small way, I have changed the graphic in the banner above to a section of corrected page from the third draft of …and that’s the end of the news. There may or may not be other surprises and releases, but I’m going to leave things at this for the time being. After all, I have a lot of work to do right now.

It Really Wants to be Written

In fact, it’s begging me now.

The UFO Novel, that is.

While I was brushing my teeth this morning, one of the three main characters started talking to me.  I had to run downstairs and transcribe what he said into Scrivener’s notes section so I wouldn’t forget what he said.

Then he sat in the backseat of the car and talked to me for most of the commute in to work.  I took my pad and pen and tried to make notes as we went.

I really didn’t expect this.  I’m rolling now on getting the new VBS play written, and that’s going to take up most of my writing time through the month of May (along with some discretionary time as I direct it in June and July for an August premiere).  By summer my two editors should have had time to read over …and that’s the end of the news, and there’s be one more draft before sending it out into the cruel, callous world.

I wasn’t really thinking about The UFO Novel at all because I figured it’s kind of a different breed of book, and if I sell and/news, I should have another thriller ready to go, and was thinking in that direction.

But perhaps other plans are in order.  We’ll see what happens.

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.