Writing Recipe, Part One (Theory Thursday)

Quill Pen and Ink

No, this isn’t a post about how I’m so much cooler than you because I write with a quill pen, or a fountain pen, or a manual typewriter.  I’m using a cheap netbook … about as glamorous as a quill pen was back in 1799.

This is the first of my articles on “writing theory.”  Now, I’m not speaking as somebody who has “made it.”  I haven’t.  I have neither fame and fortune (of which I have none), nor a level of skill that makes me feel I’ve “arrived.”

That said, I’m a much better writer than I was five (or even three) years ago.  I’ve learned a lot, both from writers who have made it, and from “doing” writing (not rewriting, but actual writing.  I’ve written more unique words in the last three years than in the previous thirty, without a doubt).

Unfortunately, rewriting doesn’t count.  It doesn’t make you a better writer, and it often doesn’t even make the piece you’re working on better.  Unless you’re already a skilled and experienced editor, you’re as likely to make it worse as you are to make it better.  Of course you should fix the typos and misspellings, but that’s about as far as it should go as a general rule.  But don’t listen to me, check out Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.  Smith’s been making a living in this business for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and he’s weathered all kinds of changes.

So here I am, talking about the “Writing Recipe,” not as someone who’s made it, but as someone who’s still struggling on the margins, another indie outsider, like some of you who are reading this.  Maybe sharing our struggles will make us feel more encouraged, more supported, and less alone.

So here we go.  I’ll start with the cake, and deal with the icing next Thursday:

There are so many factors that go into good writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. First and foremost, you’re telling a story, so you need a good plot and engaging characters.

The characters don’t necessarily have to be likable per se, but they need to be engaging, active, and at least somewhat relatable. Ellie, the protagonist of S.D. Redling’s Flowertown isn’t exactly likable – she’s a mean-spirited stoner, to be honest.  But she’s always engaging, always resisting the corporate suits who run the containment zone (nicknamed Flowertown for the sickly-sweet smell of the decontaminants), even if it’s only in petty, self-destructive ways.  It’s not easy to like her, at least at first, but you certainly can’t ignore her.

The characters need to take action, to do things.  There are few things more frustrating than reading a story where things just happen to the characters.  I want the characters to drive the action.  Sure, a lot of times characters get thrust into ugly situations (The Walking Dead, several of Stephen King’s novels, including my personal favorite, Desperation), but they eventually take initiative and make things happen.  That’s almost a necessity.

Writing characters that take initiative and make things happen is easier said than done.  I’ve struggled with it, and I think I’ve mostly gotten a grip on things.  Sometimes being reactionary can be a sign of stagnation: Benedict had become so set in his role as executioner of dangerous vampires that he’d basically stopped trying to get ahead of his Vampire-Lord brother.  Granted, he’d had 900 years of bloody stalemates with Augustine to make him jaded.  But it didn’t change the fact that he did far too much reacting for his own good.  Overcoming that is part of his story arc.

In The Red Lands, Garrett has a “quest” of sorts from the very beginning.  He’s going west, to face the master of the Red Lands.  At first, he hopes to save his ex-girlfriend’s life, but as the story progresses, he learns that the stakes may be much higher.  The Red Lands was written after Blood for Blood, so I had time to learn from Benedict’s issues, and then take what I’d learned and apply it to Benedict’s next two books.

The plot, of course, has to be engaging.  It also has to move quickly enough to keep the reader going, but not so fast that it seems more like an outline than a story.  I think I’m getting better at that with each story I write, but I’m well aware that I’m not at the level of the real masters of storytelling yet.

It also helps to have some kind of premise in mind when telling the story. After all, every work of fiction will deliver a message of some sort, whether you want it to or not. I think everyone’s better off if you (as the author) consciously control that message rather than leaving it to chance.  I learned that the hard way, and continue to struggle with it.  Being the “one in charge” of your own writing is vitally important, but it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So there it is, my take on the broad strokes of writing.  But as they say, “the devil’s in the details,” so next week, I’ll look at smaller-scale things.  If this was the cake, they’ll be the icing: character voice, readability, sensory details, and so on.



Did I Have a Dream? (Theme Music Monday)

I’ve always been inspired by music.   I get a lot of story ideas while listening to music, whether I’m inspired by a lyrical fragment (almost always taken out of context) or the overall shape of the soundscape.  I almost always listen to music when writing.  I make a new playlist for every series and listen to it in my car, which always gets me in the mood to write.

Music been a pretty solid constant in my creative life since before I was even really writing fiction.

Right now what I’m focusing most on is Strange Fire (Book Three of The Red Lands).  As many of you know, The Red Lands spans the worlds, beginning on our Earth, continuing through a nightmarish liminal space (the road between worlds), through a dead world already conquered by the sorcery of the Red Lands’ master, and into the Red Lands themselves, a mad purgatory forged by the will of its master, the Red Knight.

Garrett Maines, the main character, sometimes finds himself doubting his sanity.  He stepped into this nightmare journey willingly, to save the life of the woman who broke his heart, the woman he walked away from.   He has to believe that the nightmare is a reality, and that it is a reality he can overcome.

I’ve got several songs on my Red Lands playlist, but the one that stands out most, the one that sums up everything The Red Lands is about is Nocturne by Rush.  Listen to the song, and you’ll get a feel for the madness, darkness, and hope of The Red Lands.

Body and Soul…

No, I’m not talking about a new buddy-cop story featuring a ghost detective and a zombie beat cop (even though I would totally read that).  I’m talking about the way our (my) bodies affect our (my) cognitive, emotional, and social states … especially with regard to writing.

Writing The Red Lands has been really interesting, because the characters are all learning to deal with physical deprivation.  As they cross the darkness between worlds and try to survive the dead world, hunger stalks them like a wolf.  They, like me, have really only ever had to deal with “First World Troubles,” what De Graaf, Wann, and Taylor call “Affluenza:” our inability to cope with the stress of our own affluence.

Well, I’ve been fighting a bad case of affluenza myself, and it’s been hell on my writing.  Distracted by, well, everything from Arkham City to my Kindle to 100 cable channels (I never thought I’d watch a fishing show on TV, but Jeremy Wade’s River Monsters changed my mind) to I Can Has Cheezburger, I haven’t been getting enough sleep.

Of all the things not to get enough of, sleep is the dumbest.  It’s free.  All I have to do is get my shower and go lie down.  Of course, playing one more game  of Pandemic with my wife is always worth it 🙂

I’ve also been fighting a battle with food.  For any of you outside the U.S., let me explain how this goes: around here, it’s about ten times more work to eat healthy than it is to each good-tasting-but-bad-for-you food.  It’s also significantly cheaper.  I can get a lot of low-grade meat for $5 – hot dogs are 99 cents a pack, full-fat sausage is almost as cheap, bologna is the same.

I can get a large, fresh, pepperoni pizza for $5.45, tax included, without calling ahead.  I just show up, give them a trivial amount of money, and go home with a meal that should realistically feed four … and it tastes so good.  Frozen vegetables cost more, to say nothing of fresh.  Cooking at home costs more, to say nothing of the time and energy required.

Seriously, did Jabba the Hutt design this country?

Well, there’s still nobody to blame but myself.  I have more than enough money to eat healthy foods, if I’ll just suck it up and do it.  And I know I’ll feel better if I do.  High glycemic index (sugary/starchy) foods make me feel like hammered mud.

Needless to say, I don’t get much writing done when I feel like hammered mud.  And whose fault is it?  Mine.

So, for the sake of my overall productivity (at work, writing, and in my studies), I’m going to try focusing substantial energy on increasing my physical well-being.  I’m betting it will pay off big time.

I can guess what you’re saying: “Yeah, right.  We’ve all heard that before.  The same old New Year’s Resolutions aren’t any more realistic just because Brent’s making them in July.”

Well, you’re right.  But I have a plan.  I recently read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.  He describes habit loops, consisting of a cue, a behavior, and a reward.  He digs into the science behind them, which I don’t have the space to get into here, but, to make a long story short, it’s entirely possible to replace the behavior portion of an existing habit, especially if you keep the cue and reward portions (totally breaking habits is extremely difficult, but breaking the parts that hurt us is less so).  It’s also possible to create new habits.

I’ll be working on doing both.  As a matter of fact, I’ve already created a new habit of getting up 15 minutes early and working out on a punching bag before I get ready to go to work.  It’s helped me feel better, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome my other bad habits.

My concentration is definitely suffering, along with my motivation to do anything difficult.  I’m hoping that changing a few habits will fix that, and maybe even let me shed a few pounds (my wife things look great the way I am, but my knees beg to differ).

Wish me luck!


Massive Productivity as a form of Procrastination? Indeed.

Well, there’s nothing like the difficulty of doing something that scares me a little (like writing a short story) to inspire me to get other work done.

In the last two days I’ve written roughly 7,500 words and completely planned out the plot for Red Lands Book 3 (Red Lands Book 2, City of the Dead, is currently with the trusted first reader getting checked over).  I wrote a lot of dialogue (as I tend to do when I’m outlining), and planned out several specific scenes.

Now, granted, I had been thinking about Book 3 for a long time, but I’m glad to finally have a solid grip on it.  My problems in writing Book 2 (City of the Dead) all came out of trying to make it something the series isn’t.  I wrote too many “character interaction” scenes that didn’t have sufficient personal conflict to keep the “fist of broken nails” pace and feel of Book 1 (Toward Darkness).  Once I finally figured that out, I was able to fix it. I don’t think that will be a danger in Book 3 (which I haven’t named yet).

But, to adapt a phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “I was writin’ this stuff to keep from writin’ something else,” namely, the short story challenge I set myself up on.  I don’t know why I’m so nervous about writing short stories, but I am.  But hey, if 3600+word days are the result of my procrastination, I’ll take it.

So, have you ever had that situation, where dodging something unpleasant led, not to laziness and stagnation, but massive productivity?  Is it even worth pushing through to write the short story, or should I just milk it for every massive word-count day I can get?

A little update

I’m making progress toward having actual inventory.  I put “Peace? I Hate the Word” up on Kindle and Smashwords.  I’m following Dean Wesley Smith’s advice and pricing it at $2.99, even though I feel a little odd about selling a novelette for that much (it outgrew “short story” status, reaching 7,600 words).  To make a long story short, there’s an ugly trend of indie authors devaluing their own work, and I refuse to participate.

In writing, “value” means the quality of the experience, not the number of words per dollar charged.  A 200,000 word novel priced at 99 cents may be a great value, or it may be 200,000 words of your life you’ll never get back.  I’ve gladly paid over $10 for e-books that were quite short: The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton is one example.

Another is A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz.  I got it on sale for 99 cents, but it was worth far more.  Temporary sales are good for promotion, but how do you put a book on sale when you’re starting at 99 cents?

Anyway, I’ve put “Peace? I Hate the Word” up, and I’m working on another Cassa short story.  This one’s a prequel, taking place twenty years earlier, when Cruhuer Merengo and Giuseppe Fiorentino first inherited their titles as heads of their respective houses.  It has similar themes, but approaches them from a different perspective.  I’m calling it “All Men Are Wolves.”

I know the “challenge goal” of one short story a week isn’t going to happen, but I knew that from the beginning.  I’m just glad to be making forward progress.  I’m using the short stories as workshops to improve specific aspects of my writing craft: sentence structure, character voice, proactive protagonists, and a balance of excitement with non-glorification of violence.

So, what do you think about e-book prices, especially indie prices?   And for those of you who are also writers, are there any specific aspects of your writing you’re working on improving?

As in a Glass, Darkly

Part of being a writer, especially one who writes, rather than one who spends most of his time rewriting and revising, is taking time after each finished piece to reflect on what you’re doing, what you’re doing right, and what you could be doing better.

I’m at a good place to do that right now, since I have just finished beating Red Lands Book Two (tentatively titled City of the Dead) into submission.  It’s been incredibly troublesome, and I’ve had to break my own rule about not revising.  Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but I can’t build the rest of the series if Book Two is all wrong.

It’s not that I’ve never had this much trouble writing a story.  It’s more like I’ve never actually finished anything I’ve had that much trouble with.  I honestly don’t know whether to feel frustrated or triumphant.  Back when I still revised, I got caught in the event horizon of a couple of “black hole novels,” endlessly revising, finding I had more revisions to make after each revision pass than I had before I started. It killed the joy of writing, and it pretty much guaranteed I wouldn’t have a career.  Spending a year revising a novel, only to find you’re no closer to “done” than you were before?  I shudder just remembering it.

So I’m trying to take Dean Wesley Smith’s advice: learn from my mistakes, make the next story better, and keep moving forward.  The only way to get better at writing is to write, and write with purpose.  Or, as he said it, “You have to write new material to learn.  No one ever learned to be a creative writer by rewriting.  Only by writing.”

Which leads me back to my between-stories reflection.  I have a tendency to sometimes write very long sentences, with multiple clauses, separated by commas, semicolons, colons, and even parentheses:  this may be a problem (You see what I did there?).  Books that flow more quickly tend to use shorter sentences.  They’ll usually mix it up and use some longer sentences as well, but most of the sentences will be shorter.  It’s not so much the length of the sentences as their complexity.  Adding too many clauses to a sentence can make it unwieldy.  I think I should spend a little time reading my stories aloud, possibly recording them and listening to them later.  I don’t think this is a fatal flaw, or that it makes my writing bad.

Honestly, I still think my writing is good.  I just think that I can and must improve my writing.  If I’m the same writer in five years that I am today, I’ve failed.  Stagnation is death, especially creatively.

The Red Lands series begins … now!

My newest Novella, Toward Darkness, the first book of the Red Lands series, is now up on Kindle and Smashwords!  It’s a worlds-spanning dark fantasy about a man who walks beyond the borders of our world to find a cure for his ex-girlfriend, who’s in a medically inexplicable coma, haunted by a red shadow.  The series will eventually take Garrett and the other survivors he encounters through the road between, through a dead world, and, ultimately, to the Red Lands themselves, where the threat to Lynette’s life lies.

I’d finished writing it some time ago, but I held off publishing it for two reasons.  First, I was grappling with the second book in the series, really trying to figure out what I wanted to say with it, where I wanted it to go, and I wanted to hold the first book back until I was confident the second would work.

Second, I was never quite satisfied with the cover, until now.  I found a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons of a run-down city street, then modified it heavily to give it the look of a moonless, darkened street lit only by the glowing light of red-eyed monsters.  Here it is:


And here’s the promotional text.  Tell me what you think!

How far would you go to save the one who broke your heart?

For Garrett Maines, the answer to that question will take him beyond the ends of the Earth. 

Three months ago, Lynette Collins broke his heart.  Now, she lies in a coma, oppressed by a red shadow that drains her life with every passing night.

To lift her curse, Garrett must step into the darkness and travel the night road across the borderlands of the worlds, braving the creatures of darkness that mark his every step.  In that dark place he finds a small group of survivors, dragged into a nightmare against their will.  Now, he must guide them through the darkness to the Red Lands, where the cure for Lynette’s curse must lie. 

Five unholy knights stand against him, leading dark armies, armed with blood and death and madness.

Will Garrett succeed, or will his lost love – and perhaps his entire world, fall under the curse of the Red Shadow?  And what price will he pay for setting out on the night road and walking Toward Darkness?