Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Official launching of 3No6Mo

Today is the last day of September. The due date for 3No6Mo is March 31st. So I'm considering today the official "launch date" of 3No6Mo. For the record, the three novels being written are USS Banshee (BAN01), Maradaine Constabulary (MCI01) and Vanguard (VAN01).

I'm a big believer in the process of having a Primary Writing Project and a Secondary Project at any given time, usually having the Secondary Project being something else entirely. That way when Writers' Block strikes, you can switch gears for a while and get out of the stuck headspace. Here, I think the three project will all serve as secondaries for each other. However, I should start with one of them designated the Primary.

Primary will be USS Banshee. The main reasoning behind that is I've been writing in the city of Maradaine for two books now (and in the larger world for a third with Crown of Druthal), so I could stand to get out of fantasy and into space opera for a while.

I will be providing word counts, but these are largely to chart daily progress, and not about end-goals. I'm not going to presume I know how long these are going to be before they are written. Also, word counts only apply to actual text, not outlines, character pages and other prep work.

Word Count:
BAN01: 1085
MCI01: 280
VAN01: 150

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Crazy is as Crazy Does

I figure, when it comes to my writing, I've already embraced that I have a Big Crazy Plan, so shouldn't the smaller parts also have an element of Crazy to them?

Yes, I think so.

Here's what I'm thinking. I've done the NaNoWriMo thing, and that's a fine exercise for discipline. I want to crank up my writing discipline to the next level.

I've got three more "Book One" novels to write.
Also, in six months, I turn 37.

That's a good deadline to have six completed novels, even if they are rough drafts, yes?

Three novels, six months.


That's a Crazy Plan.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Here is the Big Question, in terms of strategy. I want to get all my "rough drafts" done, and then work on polishing and selling them. Each rough draft is a learning experience. My writing at the end of Crown of Druthal is definitely stronger than it was at the beginning. For Thorn of Dentonhill and Holver Alley Crew, each time my writing improved, as different challenges presented themselves.

Now, though, I want to drive forward with some pure octane. And I want to get these three pieces out of my head and into text.

It'll also keep me from going crazy.

So, the question is... how fast can I pound out three books?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The next step...

Now I have my rough draft of Holver Alley Crew done, the question is What Next?

Of course, I will keep shopping Thorn of Dentonhill, and putting Crown of Druthal through the workshop process...

But the big thing is to start work on one of the three rough drafts of new projects: Maradaine Constublary, Vanguard and USS Banshee. Have to decide which is going next.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I have now finished the Rough Draft of Holver Alley Crew. That goes to my first readers in a couple days.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A matter of perspective

I was thinking further on my last entry, and the frequent and ever-recurring heat John Scalzi receives for saying that teenage writing sucks. Moreover, I was thinking about how many agree comments he got (and still gets) from teenagers declaring that, no, THEIR writing doesn't suck. That they are really a great writer.

I can understand why they believe that, because they are (probably) in high school, and in that environment, there is a different perspective. In high school, you can be the star quarterback of the football team... but that doesn't mean your game is ready for the NFL. You might have knocked them all dead in your high school production of Look Homeward Angel... but that doesn't mean you're ready for Broadway.

By the same token, being a writer highly praised by your peers and teachers in high school does not mean that you've got your skills up to a professional level.

Recently I had a workshop with an editor and a major publishing house. He made a comment to a young member of our group (though he did blanket this as being somewhat applicable to all writers) about being wary of high school teacher praise. Namely, by taking said praise too seriously, you can cement bad writing ticks that served you well in high school.

I would even go so far as to argue that "good writing" in a high school context is, in fact, not necessarily good writing at all. At least from my memory, there is a certain drive at that level towards purple prose, poetical opaqueness over clarity, and a strange obsession with trying to out-thesaurus yourself, to seek synonym in order to avoid repeating the same word. That last one is exactly why you have people doing grammatical backflips to avoid using "someone said."

Things like that infected my writing well into my twenties, unfortunately.

Monday, September 21, 2009

It always gets better

I'm kind of astounded that John Scalzi's Ten Things Teenage Writers Should Know article (and its follow-up pieces) still get commentary action. Apparently it's a common google hit if you search "Teenage writing", and it always raises up some ire since his opening salvo is "Teen writing sucks".

Not that long ago, I was digging through my old papers (moving the OLD old into boxes to put in the attic, so the less old can fit in the file cabinet.), and found some stuff I wrote back when I was 19.

And DAMN did that stuff suck. At the time I'm sure I thought it was, at least, solid. But, really, it sucked. Empirically. Physicists could prove it sucked.

Hell, stuff I wrote five years ago, in my early thirties, sucked.

I can honestly say that the point where my curve started to move away from sucking is when I started taking the process of critiquing seriously.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A plea to other aspiring authors

Dear Aspiring Authors,

We're all in a tough boat here, I know. This is a game of persistence, talent, hard work and not a small amount of luck. We are all trying the best we can to get ourselves out there, and I firmly believe that this is not a zero-sum game. The potential success of my book, I hope, does not take away someone else's potential success.

That said, I was sadly disappointed to read the following in agent Jennifer Jackson's blog:

I have noticed more people are querying:

* Without having a finished and polished manuscript to show
* Before doing sufficient research into what the agent handles or explicitly is not interested in seeing
* Not even remotely following guidelines and supplying the information an agent needs to make an assessment

Why are people doing this? Querying this way is breathtakingly stupid.

So, please, if you are one of these people, I have this to say to you:


All you are doing is pouring bacon grease down the drain. You make it harder for all of us by clogging up the system, wasting agents' time, and making more and more of them decide to close to submissions.

It's this last one that really hurts all of us.

Let me tell you all a story. When I was in college I had a problem with one of my classes, and wanted to talk to the professor about resolving it. Unfortunately, right before I spoke to him, another student with a similar problem thought the best way to deal with it was to scream and swear and pitch a red-faced fit. When I had a chance to talk with the man, he was already in such a state over the fool in front of me, he had no interest in listening to me. I was lumped in with the rest. The fact that I was trying to do things correctly and politely and find a mutual solution didn't matter. Fortunately, I was persistent and went back a week later, and with the professor in a calmer state, he was willing to work with me.

Please, fellow aspiring authors, stop being that guy. Stop breaking the system for the rest of us.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Worldbuilding on an Interstellar Scale

About a year ago I was watching a panel on worldbuilding, and Steven Brust said something that really resonated with me. It's been a year, so I'm probably going to misquote it, but the gist of it was:
"Most worldbuilding comes from a place of 'I really like this thing... but I don't like this aspect of it.'"
He gave a few examples, mostly to the tune of giving a friendly shot across the bow at John Scalzi who was sitting two seats over, but at the time I was thinking, "That's exactly what the USS Banshee universe is."

Namely, I really like Star Trek, but I don't like how humans are such power-players despite being late arrivals to the interstellar table.

I mean, of course, I understand the logistic reasons behind a human-centered world-view, and on a TV show having a cast of mostly humans. But as proud as I am of us hairless monkeys, I find it hard to fathom in a universe where there already was a vibrant neighborhood of dozens of interstellar-traveling species, having spent hundreds of years exploring, fighting, mining, colonizing, etc., that human entry into the scene would be able to have as strong of an impact. That there would still be so many uninhabited worlds for us to colonize.

So, I thought, what if it were a universe where four alien species came together and formed an alliance, build on the ideals of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence and protecting natural resources and developing life... and they look at humans as a species that might have potential... if they weren't so presumptuous as to try and claim every piece of rock with no flag on it as their own?

That's was my starting point.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Laying out the plans

One thing I’m not lacking for is ideas. As I’ve mentioned before, I am an outliner. That doesn’t just apply to a single book, it also applies to the Big Picture. I’ve sketched out a rough outline of what I want to write, what I want to accomplish, of all the ideas I’ve got a solid plan for.

It’s a lot.

If I reached the prolific speed of a novel every three months (a goal which I do think is achievable, I should say), then I would be finished writing them all by… Autumn of 2031.

Wow, that’s sobering to write out that way.

While long-term goals are important, I need to work the short-term goals far more. And, fortunately, the short-term goals line up with the long-term goals.

The long-term goals involve, essentially, six potential series (there’s that scary word again.) The short-term goals involve writing those first standalone books of each series. And with those first books, kick my foot into the door with every ounce of persistence I can muster until I have an agent and have a book in print.

Here’s where I currently stand on each book*:

  • Crown of Druthal (Book 1 of Crown of Druthal series): Finished third draft, though aspects of it need rewriting.
  • Thorn of Dentonhill (Book 1 of Veranix series): Finished third draft. Currently shopping to agents.
  • The Fire Gig (Book 1 of Holver Alley Crew series): Rough draft 95% done. Anticipate finishing by next week.
  • From Star to Star (Book 1 of USS Banshee series): Awful, unoutlined, half-finished draft tossed. New outline written.
  • Between Them and Harm (Book 1 of Vanguard series): Full outline written.
  • The Mage Murders (Book 1 of Maradaine Constabulary series): Full outline written.

*- Of course, the title of each respective book is a work-in-progress placeholder. I keep changing said titles all the time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fantasy Manifesto #3

3. Enough with The Chosen One already.

Miracle babies who are destined to destroy the evil warlord. Hidden princes, raised humbly on some tiny farm, who will grow up to reclaim the throne. Prophecies that foretell their coming.

Been done. To death.

For one big reason: it kills tension. If someone is the Destined Hero, then you've already told us he's going to win. Now, I go into most fantasy books, pretty much figuring the heroes are going to win. But I want to feel they earned it. If you lay out this huge prophecy of destiny of how said person will do everything… well, then, you’re just giving us the outline right off the bat, aren’t you? If you just make it obvious that your characters are chess pieces in a big, planned out game, with no choices of their own to make… then you’ve lost me.

Now, I have to admit, one well-worn trope I love is a prophecy of defeat. The best are the ones that seem to be a declaration of immortality, but are, in truth, telling someone exactly how their defeat is going to happen. Those then give you the satisfying “I am no man!” or “Macduff from his mother’s womb was untimely ripped!” moments.

You know what I’d love to see—and maybe it’s out there—is for the humble, goodhearted farmboy to be the Chosen One of Prophecy… but he is destined to become the Dark Lord. And in the end of the book, that’s exactly what happens. Is there anything like that out there?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fantasy Manifesto #2

Continuing with my Fantasy Manifesto, I offer the following:

2. You don't have to re-invent the wheel. You certainly don't have to re-name it.

I understand the motivation to give one's fantasy an otherworldly quality. When one is worldbuilding, there is the temptation to really BUILD it from the ground up, if not even going all the way to creation.

A big part of any culture is language, and use of language. You want your world to come out as unique, special and charming. You want your world to stand out with clarity.

But you don't do that by using semi-nonsense words when perfectly good words in English (or whatever language you are writing in) exist. Some fine examples of words you probably don't need to create new words for: day, daytime, night, nighttime, month, year, sunrise, sunset.*

I understand where the motivation to do this sort of thing comes from. I know some of the time I go into a linguistic rabbit-hole when I think about the origins of some words ("Parliament" comes from the French word parlez, but there is no France here so how can the word Parliament exist??!?), but I've come to the conclusion that only madness lies there.

Writing, especially writing a fantasy novel, is heavy lifting already. Why weigh yourself down instead of letting the existing language do its work for you?

*- Every rule, of course, has an exception. Watership Down, possibly one of my favorite books of all time, does create new words for daytime, noon, sunset, and such. There it works. I think it works because it specifically ties into rabbit-lore throughout the story. And maybe that's the key difference to look at: if your made-up word is doing worldbuilding work for you, or if it's weighing it down.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fantasy Manifesto #1

When it comes to Fantasy writing, I have a number of rules. Maybe not rules, but red-flags. Things that, when I see them, let me know that I'm probably not going to enjoy the work.

This listing has become my Fantasy Manifesto.

1. No Fucking Elves.

This is my big number one. Now, what do I mean by that? I don't mean it literally, that any story with an elf will be no good. But odds are high.

Why is that? Because, in my experience, it's usually a cheat. People will have "elves" as a shortcut to avoid doing real worldbuilding and society creation work. Too many works just say "elf", with the idea that it's understood that said elves are forest-dwelling, bow-wielding, tall-and-graceful, long-lived ponces. Likewise with dwarves, trolls, gnomes, orcs-- and to a lesser degree, werewolves and vampires. Using this stuff just makes it look like you're cribbing off of Tolkien. Or worse, cribbing off of D&D.

And just renaming them something else... that doesn't work for me either. I've had some writers tell me they have their X-race in the Forests and Y-race in the Mountains, and then in a low whisper say, "You know, my elves and dwarves", like they KNOW they're cheating, but they hope they are getting away with it.

Now, as with all things, it's not the tools you use, it's how you use them. Just like some people have mined vampires, werewolves and zombies recently to really interesting effect... I'm certain that elves... and dwarves, trolls, gnomes and orcs... could be used in a new and interesting way. Heck, Stan Nicholls's trilogy of Orcs books has caught my attention. I haven't read them yet, but I'm intrigued to see what he did there.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

In July I wrote "Poolside", a play that actually takes place in a pool. This probably limits its ability to be produced in most venues. It was written explicitly for the venue it played in, as part of a recurring project by The Vestige Group, called Memories of a House.

On the whole, it was a production I was pleased with, and the Vestige Group are a good bunch that I'd like to work with more directly in the future. The production got a few good write-ups. Recently there's been a lot more internet-based reviews of Austin Theatre, a development which pleases me a lot. Back in the late 90s, when I started doing theatre here, the Chronicle and the Statesman were the only games, really.

Anyway, some highlights:

Those three reviews, for me, stood out because they not only praised me, but got my name right.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Expanded Universe

In the comments of yesterday's entry, the term "expanded universe" came up, as an alternative to "series". Now, as much as I like the term "expanded universe", and as much as my long-term plans would probably fit under that category... I'd imagine actually using that term in a query letter would be a red flag for agents and publishers.

"Expanded universe" means, to a degree, you're thinking of a franchise. Which implies a property that has a TV, movie or video-game tie-in. It could also imply an author is a "big dog" at his or her publishers. David Weber at Baen is a prime example, as now there are other Baen authors writing in the Honorverse. Hell, it's CALLED the Honorverse.

(Though, amusingly, the first Honor Harrington book has some significant differences from the books. It is the only one with an alien civilization-- everything else is Humans Only (unless you count the treecats as intelligent aliens, which... well, I won't get into that.)

"Expanded universe" also, at least to me, implies multiple authors. Which goes back to franchise.

What it really comes down to is worldbuilding, living, breathing worldbuilding that goes far beyond the borders of your first book.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Series and Standalone

I put up my query letter for Thorn of Dentonhill on the Absolute Write message boards, as I was told they would "tear it up and break it down and make it as good as you can get it". Always something I could use more help with, but with all things, you have to be aware of who you're getting advice from. All advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

However, this one bit jumped out at me. In my query letter I have the following:

The Thorn of Dentonhill is a stand-alone novel, but I envision it as the first in a series of several books.

That sentence I got from the fabulous Julie Kenner, and it struck me as a sound and reasonable thing to say. However, someone told me to cut it, saying:

Mentioning it could be a series for a first time writer is taboo. I had this tendency beaten out of me very quick.

I'm not sure what the source is for this "taboo". I've never heard of it before. Also it doesn't make sense. Why would an agent not want to know that you have more potential books in you? I mean, yes, the point is selling the singular book that you currently are shopping... but I would think if an agent is going to consider taking you on, they would want to know if you are aiming to be next Stephen King or the next Harper Lee.

Now, in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, the nature of series have changed. Gone, I think, are series like Lord of the Rings or The Belgariad, where multiple books really just tell one big story. At least, from a new author. That, I could see agents and publishers aren't interested in seeing. After all, with one of those you're asking a publisher to commit to three (or five) books that would all have to be published for the first one to make sense. Risky venture.

However, a standalone book that CAN be a series is a different matter. There, you aren't committing your potential agent or editor to doing more. But you are letting them know that more is there, if they want it. That, I'd imagine, is a selling point.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To parallel yesterday's essay on Magic, another challenge is writing the lack of magic. Or, more correctly, writing a non-magic story in a world where magic exists. My current project, Holver Alley Crew, takes place in a world where magic exists, but none of the main characters use it, and it's not an element of the plot at all.

But it's there.

I honestly don't know how often it's been done. I should probably do some research on the subject. But I certainly don't think it's common.

Someone in one of my critique groups once told me that if magic is in the story, it has to be at the center of the story. I'm not sure if I can agree with that. I mean, in a world where magic exists, it is not (usually) the end-all be-all of life. I would think there are plenty of stories, plenty of lives, which magic is not a part of. It may be a poor analogy, but it's not like every story that takes place in our world must include nuclear power or jet fighters or even cell phones.

But at the same time, nuclear power and jet fighters and cell phones are around, and their mere existence shapes the world around them, even if the story being told has nothing to do with them.

So that's the challenge-- or, at least, one of them-- in the current project. Giving that nod to magic's existence, while at the same time, communicating well that it's not part of what's happening. That challenge, is, at its core, working your worldbuilding into the story.

Of course, doing good worldbuilding, and working one's worldbuilding well in the narrative... that's a different discussion.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On Magic

Magic is always a challenge for a fantasy writer, I think. Not actually writing about magic, per se, but dealing with your readers' expectations of What Magic Should Be. Magic is the element, I think, that makes fantasy into fantasy. I mean, what's Urban Fantasy, at its core, if not The World We Know, but with Magic?

You have your baggage about magic, your readers have their baggage, and when the two sets don't match, someone is going to get annoyed. Probably them, because they think You Are Wrong.

The thing I don't get is, you can't be wrong. What you can be, though, is inconsistent, and that's a problem. It's important to know your rules of magic. What I don't think is necessary is to spell out Rules of Magic explicitly in the text, at least not right off the bat. I have had beta readers who say I need to, though. I've also had a reader say I wasn't playing fair because my character used magic on page 2, and I hadn't established that yet. I'm not sure how much sooner I could have established it unless I just plain opened with it.

On top of that, I think people have expectations of What Having Magic means, which I find fascinating, but what it means depends on how common it is. On one side, you have things like The Belgariad, where magic is so rare that most people think it's just stuff of legend and myth. On the other side, you have something like Steven Brust's Vlad series, where magic is so common that even getting killed is mostly only an annoying inconvenience, since a friend of yours will have to pay for a resurrection spell. So you'll again have trouble if people expect magic to be more like Vlad, but you write it like Belgariad.

I don't necessarily have a solution, beyond, "It's my world, I know how magic works, don't tell me I'm wrong". But I think it's important to be aware of these things.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


It is said that there are two kinds of writers: outliners and improvisers. Those wanting to be more poetic (or would that be alliterative?) call them Planners and Pantsers.

I am, without shame or reservation, an outliner. I tried, some time ago, to be an improviser. I really went for the whole, "Start writing and see where it goes." thing. For me, where that goes is a nosedive into the ground somewhere around the 20,000 word mark.

So I learned how to outline. I embraced outlining, like a religion.

And it made a huge difference.

One big reason was, I was getting hung up on the mysteries. On my failed attempt to write an ongoing USS Banshee story, for example, I had a whole thing where my main character, Lt. Samantha Kengle, had been praised and honored for her actions in a battle a few months prior. And I hinted all this stuff about how what everyone THINKS happened and what she REALLY did were two very things.

Two problems:
1. I had NO CLUE what everyone thinks happened.
2. I had NO CLUE what she really did.

Thus, I had to go back to the drawing board. And plan.

One thing I haven't had a problem with is the notion that outlining stifles the writing process. In every finished (or near finished) work, I've strayed from the outline in minor ways. Or even major ways. I've made plenty of discoveries about the characters, and how to get what I need to happen.

The best analogy, for me, is making a cross-country drive. The outline is looking at the map, planning what route I'm going to take to get where I need to go. The writing is the actual drive, where actual discoveries along the way (Route 85 is shut down? World's Biggest Pecan Pie?) cause deviation... but since I have the plan... I know how to make it to the end.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I'm re-reading Asimov's Caves of Steel, which has always been a favorite. Written in 1954, there's plenty of stuff in it that is incredibly out-of-date, but things that are easy to look past. The big one that stands out is this future Earth (year unspecified, but somewhere in the 3000's) having a population of 8 billion, a population level that has the Earth near its breaking point. It's less about resources (though it comes up), and more about just plain living on top of each other-- that with 8 billion no one could have any "personal" space.

What really stands out, though, looking at it from a writing-critique standpoint, is how it would not survive a critique session done today, let alone get over the hurdles of publication. It has huge chunks of info-dump, just pages upon pages where it's just telling us How Things Are. It also is a complete mess in terms of point-of-view. It's sort of third-person-omniscient, but also sort of third-person-limited from Baley's POV. But even with Baley's POV, it more often tells us what his face is doing rather than what his feelings are.

The big thing I saw, however, is a lot of the Bad Writing Ticks I had a few years ago (namely, large meandering infodumps and messy POV) are right there.

So: learn from the masters, but at the same time, recognize the things of old that don't cut it anymore.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I've decided to start a blog that is exclusively about writing-- both novel writing and playwriting.  I'll also talk about my experiences with the creative process as well as the business end of things.