Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2015 Plans!

Just to end the suspense, yes I did win Nanowrimo 2014 with a no-name bad fan fiction based on my Piarra fiction, which All Needs Massive Editing. I have edits on the first book, Chazho, in progress from last April but need to pick that up again and redo from the redo. Actually read back through the redo and reverse one change, then keep going on it minus that change. If I made my character black, the human characters in America would react to him differently and the book's ending would not work. All history wolud be altered. He has to be and look like an alien version of a typical white bearded young geek Silicon Valley type of dudebro, slightly bewildered by sudden success but still Very Stereotypey.

Greater consciousness can come later in series and will.

Big sudden change of plans though. The Piarra Series is a huge rewrite project and one I do not want to release until at least the first five important books are revised and ready for publication. Most of the rest are sort of fun but not integral to the backstory of the whole, but those five are the events that entire backstory hangs on - with many time travel novels intersecting them. 

So when they go to print, they need to be perfect. They will become canon and anything I don't like in them is "history and fact" as the time travel emperor says when he nails something in as unchangeable, work around it.

What's big is that I am also preparing to release a stand alone book, Elder's Pride, in 2015. I was lucky enough to get Jillian Lambert for my cover artist. I've loved her work for years and years, especially her graphic novel Brainsick. I followed Brainsick through many iterations and finally beta read the final version. Adore the story. Then in chatting in general looking at her current projects, we got to talking and she got interested in Elder's Pride.

So I sent her the rough draft. I've already had a good critique on it from Nonny and one little thing from that critique and others stuck in mind - the prose style of the science passages was imitation Robert Bakker. It fell flat because that isn't my voice. I am not an actual paleontologist or a professor used to doing lectures on evolution. I'm a science fiction writer who handwaves on the science all the time, loves science but likes to make it all up to have a free hand with backstory instead of being nailed to unpleasantly limiting reality. 

So in one of the emails to Jill, it clicked as I tried to explain to her what I'd rather do than fake Bakker-voice. Fake Bradbury voice. Poetic, my real sense of wonder about the history of life and story of evolution, not a scientist's voice at all but a science-loving poet's. Not even imitation Bradbury so much as borrow a couple of his techniques of prose poetry and convey a sense of wonder that these cats are related to my cats and the lineage of all cats is a great beauty in the universe. The book is a cat lovers' novel. 

If you like cats and big cats, you'll enjoy Elder's Pride because the story is about a family of cats forming and migrating to a new territory, settling down there, fighting off rivals and having kittens. There are no humans in it. Humans haven't arrived yet. This is in the long prehistory before any of those people in canoes showed up to carve out their territory among the short faced bears, long tooth cats and American lions who were apparently a whole lot like African lions but just lived on our continent then. MGM was on to something!

It's all about the cats. I did it for a Nanowrimo but I researched it for several years before I did, both online and offline. I miss all my big cats and sabercats reference books, they're still in Arkansas. Fortunately though, all this book really needs is some attention to Point of View to keep it oriented for readers and my replacing all the dry science with poetic richness - and poetic conciseness, that happens too when poetry's applied. 

And Jill, who is a very good realist artist as well as graphic novel artist, is going about it a lot like James Gurney, making plans to do a maquette of one of the cats to draw from. This is going to be so beautiful. Heck, I may draw the cats again too in order to keep myself focused on the edits. But the author sketches are for the website of the book, the cover goes to Ms. Lambert. This is going to be awesome!

It is the beginning of the dam break. I have way over 50 novels stashed in my hard drive that need editing and prep. As I start shoveling them into availability the proceeds will go toward the next books in line, until I've got them all out somewhere earning. Only when I've got through the most salable 20 or so will I even start getting down to "maybe this is a toss rather than a rewrite" category. Most are pretty salable. 

Glad to be starting with "cats." I might return to them in November 2015 too, either big wild cats or small ones.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nanowrimo 2014

Oh boy. It's been two years since I updated this blog and it's a good one. Just to catch you up, I had some financial issues that led to some health issues and logistic problems. I live in San Francisco on a limited SSI income in an SRO - Single Room Occupancy residence hotel. I love this place and the rent is affordable. It's tight though, so rising food costs and other expenses ground me down and I had serious trouble eating till I got onto a hot meals program from the local Salvation Army. Five days a week, minus holidays, I get a good organic hot lunch from them and that closed the gap.

I also used to see a therapist every week on Mondays. From going out maybe once or twice a year in harsher climates, I went up to six times a month on necessary medical appointments with others thrown in as needed - usually by bureaucrats or doctor's demand. In my first six months I had to go to many more because of various things I was doing. I wore myself down. IT takes years to completely deplete my body energy but when I'm living on a cumulative net loss and overexerting myself, it will eventually catch up with me. I wound up shutting down more and more aspects of my life because I didn't have the energy for it. I slept like my cat.

Part of that was a change of therapist. My first one did me a lot of good and helped me like a case manager. Julie even hooked me up with the food program. However, the second one, a good therapist, relied much more on methods that don't work well with my physical disabilities. I gave it a good long try and we explored every possible solution within his skills but had to quit.

The program changed its rules so that long term therapy wasn't supported so we couldn't go on with the method that does work. Talk therapy unraveling past traumas with full understanding of their causes and scars helps and always seems to point to the same thing.

Either my physical disabilities, especially when untreated and undiagnosed, distorted my relationships or the necessary adaptations I made to be able to function at all made me very hard to live with. Many things most people enjoy are difficult or impossible. I limp to a different drummer. I'm not a loner by personality. I'm a sociable, gregarious person who enjoys being around people in any positive situation, but only when I'm physically up to socializing.

In person past a certain level of pain or loss of energy, I'm not fun to be around. I get foggy and confused. Fibromyalgia can reduce me to unintelligible so fast if I get an emotional shock. I had to give up debate in person and eventually altogether.

Now I post my views online just to air them and don't read the discussion that comes after unless some positive comment gets to my inbox. I will be one of those authors who has to pre-filter his reviews or just not read them because it's not worth getting sick over it when my book isn't to someone's eloquently expressed taste.

Crowds are right out of it. I literally can't keep up moving with the crowd. I'm not afraid if I'm up on the podium doing public speaking, because they're not running right at me. I can open up there at my pace and get entertaining. But I will not be in time if I try to sing with a chorus or be able to stay on my feet throughout the song.

I can't live on the clock. I thought I could live on the calendar but if I get sick, a long slow recovery time knocks me off that. I thought I could do deadlines. The only way that works is if I'm already done and that's just a matter of when to release it. There is no way my body will allow me to behave in a professional manner. I am not and never will be business class.

That doesn't mean I won't write or publish. It means that has to come on my schedule and I live on Indian time. It's done when it's done. When it hits print it's done and there will be no more changes unless I decide for my own reasons to make some years later.

Raven Dance is slated for a tightening rewrite, an afterword about real life inspiration and most of all the natural break into two volumes that comes when the timeline has about a year gap from the end of the previous chapter to start of the next. I just sailed into the sequel without realizing it was another book and the structures are complete. If all I did was come up with a book one title and break it, that's the kind of change that can work.

All the rest, old or new, are still unpublished and thus Not Done. I'm working on a rewrite of Chazho, which is book one of my Piarra series. It has a mountain of backstory and over thirty other volumes in that setting.

I still participate in Nanowrimo and I won again this year. For several years I've been doing stand alone books for Nanowrimo with an eye to more varied fare for readers when I start releasing all of them. I still love those, especially Sabertooth. They're cooling for rewrite and what I need to for a successful career is hone my editng process till it's as smooth and familiar as my drafting process.

One problem with this is San Francisco weather. November is one of my worst months here. The start of winter gets rainy and cold. Not snow like the rest of the culture but a bone-aching chill that sucks down my energy into pain and kicks fibromyalgia up into a huge continual flare at every pressure change. I sleep like my cat and can't concentrate in November.

So what I did last year was try a difficult genre I'd never done before - steampunk. I like Victoriana. I like some steampunk novels. The clothes and stuff are cool. I cannot figure out what I don't like about it since it's a style that lends itself to Dickens Revival! I could even tackle economic issues in it well, focusing on the echoes of the Gilded Age in our times. Yet I didn't exactly do that and the book barely got to 50k. I'm not sure if I even wrote the ending or halted in exhaustion on making it past the winner line. It needs more work and hard work to get it right.

This year I thought "Hey, why not Horror?" Wonderful title: Fear This. I picked a classic subject, Serial Killers and then my protagonist became a wonderful antihero who's basically a traditional Female Serial Killer: Vigilante... then the supernatural came in. Whoohoo! Awesome, it's genuinely going to surprise readers, it's myth gone wild, it's true to source as I can get it but breaks some ugly stereotypes. It's a good book.

I also had three to five day gaps between scenes or chapters staying on track. I got to 21,210 at a point I was supposed to be getting close to 30,000 and the freeze set in. I wasn't going to make the numbers on Fear This. 

NaNoWriMo was a cakewalk most years. I've done Three Day Novel Contest officially three times and unofficially most years. I've written a 75,000 word Three Day Novel, a comedy with kids and bed monsters, that came out as a good stand alone book. That's my natural process and speed.

When I tackle a difficult subject during bad weather the result isn't guaranteed. So I realized I should just take Wrimo for what it is and write a bad book that could give me some good ideas or a workable rough draft. I dropped all the pressure that was choking me on Fear This and titled my goof-off project Pure Self Indulgent Tripe just to remind myself what Nanowrimo is for.

You don't get a good book on the first draft. You get a first draft that can become a good book once you polish it and throw out what isn't needed - in my case, sometimes that's one in three sentences to cut it to size. I write like an Impressionist painter. Get an idea, then throw it out there into a file working fast and intuitive. Try to get it down really fast while the idea is hot. Tell the story to myself first and then see how it looks when it's done.

From the first chapter's goofy reminiscing in first person to the second chapter introduction of a character from the old series - or rather from its backstory, he wasn't who he said he was - I was back on Piarra with my Byzantine royal intrigues, complex multi level plots, character driven stories and huge cast. Not all of them got on stage. Enough of them did that I now have a good idea what the characters are actually doing now rather than what they were doing in 2000 on and around Contact Earth.

Whether I retitle, rewrite and publish Tripe as its own book isn't relevant. I could easily treat the whole thing as a character study and world building exercise to get a better look at my series as a whole. But I won Nanowrimo a couple of days ago doing it and that brought back my mojo.

I have to have fun. I can't work on it like I'm trying to do a commission of something I'm not very good at yet. I can let the wordstream flow if I'm sick but only if I am so engaged in the story that I'm lost in it feeling the endorphins of process. If it's hard work, it may come out well but it has to be done more like photorealism - carefully look at this story and pick it out, get it precise, get almost perfectionist about its details to make it work.

That's not a reason not to do it. It's a reason not to do it for Nanowrimo. Wrimo is supposed to be a break, an annual vacation of the mind. Lose myself in a good book by one of my favorite authors, me. I like horror but my daughter brought up something telling about Horror and Fibromyalgia.

"Dad, if you scare yourself you're going to flare and get sick."

Duh. She made sense. So the Horror novel is now a slow back burner project. I might even outline it because writing it was so much less intuitive. It came out just as well outlining as "pantsing" so that may help me complete it. Get the gist of the plot down while I still know it, so I can pick it up later. Sketch and trust the sketch to be reasonably well balanced.

In art, sometimes I just sketch fast and layer color and work before the light changes in pastels. Sometimes I measure carefully and sketch in erasable colored pencils and do a watercolor underpainting neatly setting under layers to each area of tone and color, then layer Prismacolors 20 to 30 times to get a rich glowing realism painting achievable in no other medium. They are different processes, one fast and one slow. If I look at difficult books that way and difficult genres that way, I may succeed in those ambitious projects.

Just as long as there is no deadline for their completion, I'm good.

If you're doing Nanowrimo, don't forget to have fun. That's the moral of the story and what I learned in this year's marathon. Every year I do it, I become a better writer. If you hate the trash you wrote when you got the Winner's Certificate, stuff it in a folder to look at the idea again later or edit when you cool down and see what made it worth doing. My advice on that: don't throw it out. You don't know what your best work is until it's in print and other people say it is. You can't tell what worked or not till you master a skill consciously that you might have been using intuitively. Learning in the arts is lifelong.

What comes out best sometimes hurts most getting it down or takes the most effort because that's challenging your deepest self. Or it comes spilling out casually when you're not thinking about it because you're not choking on fear of failure or fear of success or fear of yourself.

I faced my killer instinct in Fear This and backed off to give that a slow nuanced long look. I have to look back very young to remember what it was like to think killing someone would be cool. I came a long way on nonviolence. Because I did, I looked at the cripple in the mirror at the top of Tripe and blew past that fear fast because he wasn't as ugly as the serial killer I would've been if I took the wrong turn as a child or had a slightly different brain chemistry or just sheer luck of the situation.

A good dose of something I couldn't handle made the other fear an easier leap, coming up with the No Brainer: I hate being sick and I would be very glad if I could get cured of it, especially the fibromyalgia that knocked me from Marginally Functional self employment down to Cannot Work. It may become a very nuanced look at that if I rewrite it and so I'm letting it get long to let that plotline expand, that character growth.

Truth is, a good chiropractor would do me as much good as a good therapist right now. Massage therapy works wonders and chiropracty is a Reset on my skeletal problems. It's palliative but efficient, twice a month getting that when I can afford it is likely to double my working time at everything. I grew up believing every symptom was psychological and in the last couple of good therapists came to understand how much my mind is shaped by my body.

Foods I don't like turn out to be allergies or sensitivities. Activities I hate turn out to have been real dangers or overexertion and injury every time. Even the way I feel about churches boils down to hard pews and ritual calisthenics standing and kneeling and doing things in unison - something that most human beings find spiritually uplifting causes me nothing but pain and grief. I limp to a different drummer. To be a good author I have to also get into the head of people who can get something out of church, run in marathons for fun, feel safe enough to seek thrills to break the boredom.

So I'm getting something out of Nanowrimo and if you haven't tried it, go join and find out what it is. There are other events later in the year, a summer Camp Nanowrimo is an early run that might be very good for me to catch up on difficult projects. April has a script writer thing. There's plenty of ways to participate. If you are doing it, no matter what you got is more writing and more practice than you had. If ou didn't finish your novel you still have some days to do more of it or finish, if you don't win you migt finish later - or just be one step closer to finishing with that much more practice to make you better next year.

It took 20 years to finish Raven Dance's rough draft. After I finished a much shorter comedy I did on the spur of the moment, I was able to go back and finish it right despite terrors it was the worst thing I'd ever created. The highs and lows were both true. It was the best thing I'd ever done. It was also the worst thing I'd ever done, for the same reason, it was the first big novel I ever wrote even if the little quickie hit The End faster.

I'll stop here because I'd go on into technical advice about pantsing, how to write rough drafts fast and easily without looking down. That's an article in its own right and a good topic for my next essay. Thanks for your patience. I'm back now on my feet or at least my wheels and ready to type.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sound Track

What's the sound track for your book? Does it have one?

Over the years, I've found that it helps a lot to choose an album or several albums, or put together a collection of songs that specifically tell me "I'm working on (the current title) and no other." It does a lot of things.

For one thing, music is easy to have going in background. I can ignore it while I'm paying attention to what I'm doing, but its rhythm and feeling are still going to influence my prose. Movie sound tracks are really good for this because they have background music for scenes similar to the ones in my book. If the movie was in the same genre, it keeps me focused in the style of that genre.

Music is very personal. It helps to have headphones if you live with any other human beings. One side effect of my total immersion writing process is that I'll sometimes play the same song over and over and over like a teenager, driving my poor family or housemates up the wall.

Back in 2009, I discovered Radio Rivendell.

This site is beautiful. If you write fantasy novels, it provides continuous fantasy theme music and provides a link on the side to the album and artists so that if I like something they're playing, I can jot it down and find it again. So I started using that for my writing music with fantasy novels. They played The Emerald Sword by Rhapsody while I was getting ready for that year's 3 Day Novel..

I heard it and it went right straight to my brain's Story Sector.  That's my novel! I started with the Sword as a title character, sitting up in his fancy shrine full of traps and stuff watching adventurers come up and quest for him. Basically started my story at the end of the story in the song, which was just vague enough that I could make up all the cast and everything in the world. It's one of the typical Moderately Magical Worlds on the elven Great Migration. I knew it'd have elves, dragons, dark elves, humans, goblins, the usual fantasy folks in the great big iceberg of backstory that is the Great Migration (every fantasy novel I've ever done.)

I knew the locals would be interesting and unique. They didn't disappoint me. I downloaded the song and played it over and over and over like a crazed teenager, trancing on it. This works great for a writer. Please use headphones when you try it. The people you live with may not love the song as much as you do. They are not writing a novel. They are going around living their lives in the same building that you're working and while they do, they may not even like the song the first time they hear it.

One of the greatest kindnesses my daughter ever gave me is that she waited for 72 hours to tell me "Please, just do me a favor, Dad. Please never, ever play that song again without wearing headphones. I've been listening to it over and over for three days and I hated it the first time I heard it." She has perfect pitch and is a serious musician. I just listened to it again - in the intro there's a couple of dischords that don't bother me by genre (it's heavy metal rock) but must have caused her literal pain, over and over and over.

There's also a point in the recording where it distorts, which I know had to be extremely painful. Sour notes cause her physical pain, her ears are that sensitive. I don't mind it any more than I mind having a stain on a page in a favorite book and having to read through the coffee blotch. I don't understand music the way she does nor am I that physically sensitive. But even if it was something she loved, by the end of that 3 Day Novel weekend, she would have hated it by repetition.

So get a good set of headphones or ear buds, whatever works for your machine and your body. It'll give you privacy and help avert household members coming up to interrupt you with idle chatter while you're writing too. Then use them. Don't be self conscious about the style or type of music you like. What works for you for writing music is going to be completely personal. It has to be.

You're opening up a deep part of your mind. Writing is introspective. Music is a well known trance aid, so once you train yourself to use it, listening to the novel's sound track can drag you right into the altered state of creating that novel - observing that story and no other in the movie of the mind. Reserving certain favorites for writing music also creates a physical cue to tell your body "This is writing time."

Most writers eventually build up a set of situational cues that help them get started. Creating a routine that tells your unconscious and your left brain "I'm writing" gives confidence. It's a familiar, well known thing you do that you know how to do well. You can put in some good hours of work on it and know that work is valuable. Habit is far, far better than wringing your hands staring at a blank screen trying to figure out what to write next.

Other cues can help too - your favorite drink sitting beside you so that you hydrate while you immerse in the process, maybe a snack, maybe a couple of objects you set out as indicators. If you're doing a fantasy novel, putting out a toy dragon or something can be a reminder of what you're doing. These things aren't superstitious. They're habit cues. Another of my writing cues is choosing the wallpaper for the novel I'm working on, a powerful genre image that makes me think of that world and those characters.

When you go back to edit that novel, put on the same music and set up the same wallpaper as all the cues to tell you that you're working on that story in particular. That helps by association. It's easier to remember what you liked about it and get the feeling back with those cues.

So develop some that are general to tell you "I'm writing" and others specific to long projects. They make the process easier. Anything that makes it easier or more comfortable, reduces distractions and helps focus is going to help you produce better fiction. This is the part of your life where "do it your way" matters most. Writing fiction is flying solo into the unknown.

All this self indulgence is a reminder that you are in charge of this process. The book is yours. You are deciding everything in it - so all the little decisions about screen wallpaper or type of coffee creamer or music are getting you into a habit of making decisions without considering anyone else's opinion. We spend our entire youth following orders in school, doing things on time and reacting to a bell like Pavlov's dogs. Everything in modern American life is intended to teach obedience, punctuality and lack of initiative. If you decide you'd rather do something else, you get punished fast.

Becoming a writer means walking away from that. You are the boss. You are in charge of your writing time. Your writing environment is what you say it is, within your literal physical and financial limits. What you do with that time, how you craft the story, what genre, what you do with it and how you do it is entirely up to you. This is one of the perks but it's also terrifying. You're going to find out by trial and error what works for you. Some things won't. Just don't do them again.

The world will not shatter if you use head phones when you listen to a song over and over, or stay up late working on your book and discover you're a night owl. Even if you wind up overdoing it and making a mistake that affects your everyday life, that's still just trial and error. Find a way to do it that works within your context, like using the headphones. Find ways to make privacy, because this intensely personal process takes having emotional privacy.

Some writers can create this privacy out in public with a lot of people around. Libraries are good for that - it's socially okay to ignore everyone else and focus on what you're doing as long as it's quiet. The kind of privacy I'm talking about is where other people don't interrupt you to talk about what's going on or what was on TV or why they need your advice on a personal problem. You're busy - and that means you need to treat yourself as that busy and that important. During your writing time, you are the boss of everything you do.

Being decisive about the wallpaper and music makes it a little easier to decide whether your protagonist is carrying a sword or a bow or a gun. That makes it easier to decide if she's facing forty demons or if holy water makes them disappear or just burns and makes them mad. It gets you into a state of mind where your artistic decisions can be motivated purely by what works best for the story.

Two nights ago I got started editing The Emerald Sword, now retitled The Sword of Arkatyr. Back when I first did the book, I tried to contact the band for permission to use the song The Emerald Sword as an opening lyric with a link to their website, a win-win deal to help promote their album and my book. They never replied to my query, so I changed the title and the main character's name. I'm carefully editing out the song references in the book so that I'm not breaking their copyright. It was only a starting point.

Turns out their theme album Tales from the Emerald Sword has its own story in the same genre. It has lots of things that never made it into my book, an Ice Warrior, unicorns, all sorts of cool stuff. It's in the same genre and a lot of fun but my story isn't the same. I took one little mosaic tile of it and made up my story on the same archetypes they used. The quest object in their story doesn't even show up till the end and it's not one of my sentient Swordfolk. It's just an It, not a He, an object of great power relevant to people using it.

So he's now the Royal Sword of Arkatyr and the novel is The Sword of Arkatyr. I spent $10 at iTunes to buy their album, half in thanks for inspiring my novel, half to have the album as editing music and launchpad for the series that may grow from the world. I've got a sequel already - a witty minor character just picked on me this morning. He came out gay and told me he's the protagonist of the sequel, that I need to establish he's gay, the ex-lover still-friend of one of the characters in this book to set up for his.

I can do this thing. It's in reach now. I've looked over what it needed to be publishable and this time I have a specific goal. I'm going to put in as many hours as I can on the edits up to 40 hours a week till it's ready. Then send it to my beloved editor, an old friend who's being paid to put it into final form and see into my blind spots. She's very good at doing that and likes my books. From there I'll spend $25-$30 to another bloke online to get it formatted and make it available as an e-book, hopefully to start turning over some royalties to help fund the next project in the series.

Best of all, working on it I've rediscovered everything I liked about this book and this setting. So I'll get back to it tonight and get back to you next week. Cross your fingers I don't get sick or something else happens to disrupt the process again. Life does happen and health is precarious but I think I'm finally ready to start a decent writing routine. Maybe these books will help me finish moving to San Francisco and pay for the rest of my stuff to get shipped from Arkansas!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Carry a Notebook!

This morning I had an appointment at the Family Health Clinic at SF General Hospital, which is where all my health care is. It's a wonderful clinic with a gorgeous memorial garden out front of a somewhat Gothic red brick building with many molded architectural details. Just short of looking like a church, with iron fences that have wisteria crawling over them and a long winding disabled ramp that sweeps through the rose garden on the way to the front door.

I got up early because my cat woke me up an hour earlier than I needed to get up. Cats are Muses. This cat has been patiently shedding Cat Hairs of Inspiration at me for all 12 years of his life - his birthday was a few days ago. He's a big hairy long hair colorpoint with a deep purr and a fine-tuned awareness of my health problems. I'm planning on getting him qualified as a service animal because on bad days, he takes care of me. He will literally apply Fuzzy Tummy Treatment to exactly the worst of my sore joints and lay there for hours applying heat and love. That literally eases the pain.

Of course, he also sheds Cat Hairs of Inspiration. This morning that meant his whiskers went up my nose and his purring was right in my face. I opened my eyes to big round blue eyes only two inches away and a gentle purring mew. Of course I petted him. Of course, wakened that gently, I vaguely thought about my novel, the Yellow House novel started coming back to me.

I didn't think anything of it. I enjoyed the rumination, got dressed, got ready, decided to go down to wait for the van about half an hour early because I didn't want to just sit around dressed. Of course before going I fed the cat and gave him plenty of attention for his sensitive awareness of my sleep cycle. He waited until my sleep cycle had just ended rather than the alarm mechanically waking me in the middle of it when I'd be too sick and miserable to move.

Meanwhile the Yellow House novel concept percolated in my mind. Down the elevator, out the door in my power scooter, rumble over the wooden steps they put in when they put up the barricades around the street work in front of my building.

I looked at the time. I waited about a minute just watching people. The first line of the novel ran through my head. Just that clear and distinct. I heard the narrating character's voice. He was reading it aloud to me.

Gnomes don't hate cats.

For me, 500 words or so isn't a massive word count for a day. But an unexpected out of season novel opener when it's nowhere near November and the concept was spur of the moment, that's something new and joyous. I live in San Francisco now. I am in the right place doing what I do, living well enough to have the time and energy to spare for novel writing.

So there it is. I've got my opener. The most critical part of the first draft process is done - after this a chapter a day is just a pleasant routine I established for years and years. It's possible for me to both write and have a life - that's today's discovery. Tomorrow I'll keep going with it and all the following tomorrows, not worrying about how much word count I get per day but just saying hello to it daily and seeing what's next.

It's going to be fun. To my surprise the first cat who appeared wasn't a black Oriental Shorthair or Maine Coon like most of the mage cats so far, but a gray Persian named Misty. Yeah. A pansy-faced cat. She gets groomed by gnomes and appreciates their brushing as much as the food treats and affection just as Persians always do. She's a girl and a Persian, what will happen next? This might be the World's Least Spooky Cat to put into a novel. No one's going to notice she's magical, just that she sheds a lot.

I mean, would you expect a purring gray Persian that looks pampered and pretty to have some connection with the supernatural or do you think she's more associated with the Fancy Feast commercials? But she's invisible at twilight and her soft wool provides many a warm cloak and sweater to the gnomes. For all her daintiness, the people who live closest to her know she is a cat. Many humans will think she looks more like a toy - and that may be a big advantage for Misty and her friends.

Moral of the entry: Carry a notebook. It doesn't have to be paper and pen, any smartphone with a note-taking function will work fine for it. The little one-key-at-a-time virtual keyboard is good enough to get it down fast. Evernote will get it down fast in a way it can be exported, maybe next time I'll use that instead of the note pad. But have something with you no matter where you go or what you're doing.

You never know when the Muse is going to strike or the best first line will surge up from the place stories come from. When you jot those down, you hook the big concepts and your unconscious is often a better writer than you are.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Sorry about my long absence. Most of that has been health reasons. Winter and spring even in San Francisco are seasons that get rough on my chronic conditions. I've been sleeping a lot, putting up with massive pain and also working on some art projects lately. I've been doing more art writing and art blogging without writing about writing because my fiction's been mostly on hold. Funny coincidence, because yesterday was the second time I painted a house recently. This was a paint-along with Johannes Vloothuis, noted Canadian landscape artist. He worked in oils very large, 16" x 20". I adapted it to pastels at 8" x 10" because I'm not someone who can stand at an easel. Most of the painting process, I was staring at the screen and my painting trying to keep up. Making artistic decisions to leave out this and that because I needed to scale it all down to my size and medium. I completely changed the architecture, not understanding his sketch. So the entrance is quite different and came up from the murky depths of my memory - of so many different Northern states, from a gated neighborhood in Minnesota to Westchester, New York.
When I posted it, my responses all had a consistent theme. "It looks like a fairy tale." "It's the cottage in the woods, comfort and warmth near the wild." "I can see gnomes and fairies there." That wasn't what I saw when I was painting it. Unlike the last time when I set out to do an illustration and came up with a Lovecraft story, the painting just happened and all my associations were nonverbal. It makes sense because art is right brained. Your right brain is the source of creativity. The well of inspiration, a place that's essentially wordless. Your left brain understands language, so using language creatively is like riding a bicycle. You need both sides. Nonetheless, after months of writing hiatus, a story idea did creep in. Obvious enough that everyone who saw the picture told me the story. It's like Spiderwyck, the place where the worlds wear thin and all the little legendary people hang out throwing parties in the kitchen or tribal wars in the attic. It's a good place for little people. I asked myself "Do the people in the house know all the other peoples that connect with it?" Sure they do. Yep, that read true. They get on well with them, the humans that own the house are gatekeepers and if some of the paranormals are human sized or magic can deal with scale differences, they may not even be pure humans. A touch of elven blood wouldn't hurt for a family like that. Talking about it with an artist friend, the idea hit me. Bank of America doesn't know that's a gateway between worlds or that the current owners are holding a peace with the supernatural. I read an article about a guy who didn't even have a mortgage getting foreclosed on and spending months and a fortune in lawyers fighting it when his house was paid up, he didn't actually borrow against it! That could happen to the Magic House and if it did, if they carried out the eviction - it wouldn't be that total an eviction. Instead with the gatekeepers gone and the gates left open, perhaps purposely, things would start to go nuts in the neighborhood. I can't imagine gatekeepers to the supernatural actually defaulting on a mortgage or needing one. They usually pay their bills with ancient gold, which in this day and age would mean selling a coin now and then to an antique dealer and depositing the money. But if there was even a minor bank error - whoops, there you go, house in foreclosure despite not having a mortgage on it. Any trouble sorting it out and they could actually get foreclosed on and have to move. That invites the squatters who aren't human and life gets interesting. So what do I do when I get an idea like that? Title of this entry: Ideafile. I set up a new file in my journal folder, titled Ideafile. This one was "Ideafile - Foreclosure." I describe everything I thought of for the idea and store it. Writing it out is a good start to remembering every detail. I'll probably copy out this entry and add it to the Ideafile, which I'll go back to every time the idea comes up again. They're not hard to search for - just search my computer for the keyword Ideafile. This way when I do make time to write and sit there wondering what to write, I have my choice of all the ideas that came along when something else was scheduled. That's when ideas come. Today I'm planning on going out to Golden Gate Park with a friend, not banging out the start of a new rough draft. But as long as I've created the Ideafile, I can come back to it again. This will eventually be written. I'm also working on some older ideas, sometimes they steep for years. My lost science fiction novel "Garden of Earthly Delights" is getting a new cast. I've been working on building new characters for it and reconstructing it. Not exactly outlining but making a lot of notes, getting ready to do it again better this time. The lost version stank, the new one will have the benefit of a lot more life experience than back when I first got the idea. So when you get ideas, don't just ignore them. This is where the ideas come from. They come up when you're doing something else, when you don't have time to stop and work on a novel or story, when you're trying to sleep or muzzily waking up. Get them down and develop a system for finding them easily. Then when the day comes that you do make time for your writing, you'll have some choices when the left brain takes the lead to put these stories into words.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lovecraft La La Land

"Where do you get your ideas?"

All through my youth I was seeking the ancient guru - specifically, seeking published Science Fiction writers at conventions to kneel at their feet and learn the only job I ever wanted. They weren't hard to find. If you go to an SF convention, bring a few extra bucks and start buying them drinks. Take them to dinner. They appreciate that, usually they live on a rather lower income than say, bestseller thriller writers.

They also hate that question. It's the first one fans always ask them. To my credit, I only asked one once out of idle curiosity. I think it was Gordon Dickson. He said "Don't you know there's a place you can subscribe? I get a six-pack delivered every morning with my milk."

The way to get that subscription is to jot down any idea you get for a story or novel or character, immediately. No matter how stupid it seems. Stop getting self conscious about ideas. Just write them down. Sticky notes will do. Or in my paperless live-on-my-laptop lifestyle, lots and lots of little "Ideafile" entries in my Journal folders. If I never look back at them, the good ideas come up again and again until the story is ready to write.

The act of writing them down is intent to remember. It tells your brain "This is important." It tells the part of your brain that gets ideas all the time from everything "Go ahead and make them conscious, Rob uses these. Sometimes he even writes the story."

Many of your ideas won't stand on their own. The moment you thought of that cool character and his story, it didn't pass the inner editor and he would never make a protagonist. But he might make a two-page incident in someone else's novel.

Having survived the events of the unwritten novel, he's now characterized enough to get in the cattle call for Thug No. 2 and his dialogue will be just that step more original because that story about his bludgeoning his grandma for the money and then reading Tolstoy and feeling guilty but never quite confessing that he was the one that knocked her out for her purse till the end of his book gave him character. There are things Thug No. 2 won't do. Thug No. 1 who got abused by his drunken daddy in another unwritten story turned out just like his Pa and proud of it.

From bad stories, fragments and unfinished novels, side characters and side plots grow. They mutate. They get edited every time you look at them. Sometimes they turn out to be exactly the right puzzle piece to fit the mosaic of a whole story or a good novel. Occasionally they turn out to be the first appearance of a series character.

To get lots of ideas, treat the ones you get with respect. They're seeds. They're starting points. If you plant lots, you will have a crop.

This entry even has a picture because the photo reference in a pastel challenge on my favorite art community gave me an idea for a Lovecraft Mythos story. The photo was of a pretty little white church on a steep hill out on the East Coast, with gigantic dark ancient pines soaring two or three times its height. Several of my painter friends did wonderful paintings of the little gem of a rural church.

I looked at it and saw the Church of the Starry Wisdom, painted black and set way off in the woods where, you know, rural New Englanders get way too inbred and when they marry outside the family it's to creepy creatures from the stars in Lovecraft Mythos stories. So I went ahead and sketched the church as the Church of Starry Wisdom.

I liked that story as a kid. I felt so smug. That reporter was so dumb. I wouldn't have opened that box with the alien artifact without a radiation suit and a whole National Guard unit backing me up.

Whoops, I forgot that was the one that had a telepathic effect on the opener! Eeep! Yes, the clever young reader of the story who somehow managed to grow up and get a radiation suit and an entire unit of National Guard to check out these things was just as dumb as that dumb reporter in the 1930s! He did not correctly identify which monster it was!

Laughing at myself, I realized... hey, Lovecraft is out of copyright. There's an entire subgenre of New Mythos Stories for the same good legal reason that you get all the characters from the original Dracula coming up in any movie that even says hello to monsters. No kidding. Mina Harker can show up in your novel talking about that horrible vacation her husband took in Hungary no matter what your novel's about. You can stick to Canon or you can blow riffs on it. Just be careful not to borrow anything added by the new contemporary Lovecraft Mythos writers or you could be in hot water.

Dracula can meet Sherlock Holmes in Arkham, no problem, and if you want Drac to give the old cocaine addict the Bite to change his habits, you could set off a whole new vampire series and send him hunting Things Not Of This World once he's met things that make Dracula look like a nice guy, practically human, no real problem to the public at large unless they're young women in underwired nightdresses.

Even at that, think about it. That's just how he seduces them to join his harem. Lucy was cool with the lifestyle change, it's her jilted fiance that wasn't. She did turn into a monster though, going after little kids is definitely beyond morality even for vampires. If she'd turned one, remember how Claudia went nuts in The Vampire Lestat...

That leads to something my literature professors called The Literary Conversation.

Books answer other books. They make references to classical myths, which most authors in English at least got the short and simple version of those old stories. Name any character after someone in the Bible and you have a story behind the story. You can have fun with that. Same with ancient Greek myth. Some of the names are very common. What happens when Diana meets Samson?

You start getting recombinant story when that happens. You pull just the bits that have reference to your story. Readers, and eventually if you do it well, literature professors, nod knowingly and give points to the student who noticed that Samson Eldridge blew up the church after getting a headache while Lila Peterson gave him a bad haircut. You've made reference to a Bible story. Then turned it inside out. Samson Eldridge also mentions Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote inspiring black liberation works, and that just says "Race is part of his motives" - maybe he hated everything Eldridge Cleaver stood for and it was a black church and he was a white KKK terrorist.

You've said, with that story referencing other stories, that this bad man who blew up a church thought of himself as a hero when he did it. They do not have to turn out the same as the original stories. They can represent the influence the original story had on the character and his blockheaded misinterpretation of the sources.

And it can be tragedy if the headache was the first symptom of psychomotor epilepsy, a type in which seizures can make a person uncontrollably violent. Where did I first run into that interesting tidbit about psychomotor epilepsy?

Someone strung a whole novel on it and the bad man turned out to be a tragically sick man who could no more not be a killer than I could say, walk five miles every morning with my mismatched legs. Stories don't have to be simple and the bad man can have some sympathy. They work better when he does. They work best when he's human and there's something about him that we care about, some "if things were different I would have really liked him" thing.

It's the difference between a train wreck and a terrorist plot. When the terrorist plot is itself a train wreck, that says something about life and the human condition. Sometimes things do go exactly wrong, right down the line, like that old fable about the kingdom that got conquered for the lack of a horseshoe nail.

Those are all story seeds.

Someday I'm going to write a good fantasy novel with a blacksmith heroine because my daughter actually shoes horses. She'll stand against fate and by the time I'm done writing her, will no longer be a portrait of my daughter. I've just got my daughter's expertise as a source to get all the farrier stuff right so that anyone who's ever seen a horse get shod, let alone any horse owner, grins and laughs at the real little incidents tucked in around the story. Maybe my heroine will be good enough that the old singsong fable about the horseshoe nail won't happen this time. She might have to do more than a good job nailing the shoe on though. She might have to actually get on the horse and take the messenger's place, put on some armor and get into the battle, go right up the line until she's shouting sensible advice at the king because blacksmiths do not generally appreciate stupidity.

There's an entire novel synopsis based on something out of a nursery rhyme.

You can go ahead and do it too if you know a farrier. It's still vague enough to be subject to the Parrot Story Effect. I'll demonstrate that right now.

Here's the prompt. Write this story: A parrot learns to recite a magic spell so perfectly that the spell works.

A writer friend and I tried it in Westchester, New York. I wrote fantasy-comedy where the parrot succeeded in turning himself back into the forgetful old wizard who'd turned himself into a parrot and forgotten the "turn back" spell till the climax of the story, and was trying to prompt a younger wizard to research it. My friend's story was pure Lovecraft Mythos. The parrot was the only sane survivor, because it could happen all over again if the parrot did it again somewhere else.

I've been reading Terry Pratchett for the past two months. Reading Pratchett is like an artist spending two months roaming the Louvre in the Leonardo da Vinci section studying every stroke. The more often I read him, the more impressed I am with his craft and his message. He says hello to everything. Discworld is rooted in everything you've ever read. It's the place where those things happened.

But to anyone who lives there, it's just life and most of them have as good or as hard a time as we would. They take their wonders for granted just the way I use and wear and eat and do things everyday that would boggle anyone from Discworld. I'd be going "Oh wow, you have witches and wizards! You have magic!" The entire High Energy Magic Department would be going "Oh wow, you have a laptop!" The universe would cave in if I tried to digitize the Library of Unseen University.

Books do affect other books. We are all on this centuries-long forum thread or email group, writing our own posts to answer Shakespeare and Dickens, the ones that made the really good posts that nobody can resist answering even if everyone answered them before.

Sir Terry has something woven into the structure of magic on Discworld that describes something in real life. It's the basis of how Granny Weatherwax handles major magical mishaps. She knows story. She knows how the story goes.

We grow up on those stories and most people live them. Go to work or any club meeting and count the living cliches, the stereotypes in action. How many Gypsy Witches have you met? Have you dated any? How many iterations of Mr. Scrooge are running in the GOP primary this year? I can only hope one of them has some bad dreams around Christmas and gets sorted out, completing the story. Warren Buffett looks more like Mr. Fezziwig. I know which of them I'd rather go to their Christmas party, let alone work for.

The same stories are sloshing around in the news, in your high school gym, in your workplace, in your church, in your social clubs. But we're writers.

We make up new ones. Mostly the way Igors make up new people, a kidney here, a spare hand, a brain from that nice girl, Miss Abby Normal.

When you open up the Library inside yourself, where books rub against each other and whisper in the night, you're wise to pay attention to all the stories involving wizards and sorcerors' apprentices. It's good to stop and look in the mirror - just one mirror, not two - and ask honestly what story it is you're living.

I've got it easy. I'm disabled. I am pretty sure mine is one of those Chariots of Fire sort of things. The disabled guy who gets up and does something crazy wonderful because he wants it that much even though he can't pick up his own laundry or remember where the food is half the time. I'm getting there slow and steady like the Little Engine That Could. I'm happy as long as I'm puttering forward on it, happy when I cross a finish line, setting goals for the next one. Somehow I doubt that I will run out of finish lines to cross when I'm alive.

If only because the biggest-best finish line for that story is something that by definition I can't cross when I'm alive. I won't know if my works got remembered like Dickens or Sam Clemens or Will Shakespeare because that happens after I'm dead. It's something I can aim for by writing well and doing a lot of it, but I will not be able to tell in this life. I might find out in my next life, after I reincarnate.

But I might come back as someone who finds that out and stops believing in reincarnation because it's too egotistic and silly to think I had a past life as a famous writer. Come on, I'd believe it if I was an unknown stonemason or Random Viking Third on the Left attacking a Celtic village with my cousins but come on, famous writer? That's just wishful thinking.

I would have liked to have found out that I shared a birthday with a famous writer, especially someone whose books I loved. I should have had Robert E. Howard or Edgar Allen Poe or someone like that, instead I got a bunch of actors and musicians and other famous people who weren't famous writers and one lady poet whose works tended to irritate me as a child and look better now that I'm grown. No rip-roaring novelists, turns out I'm the one planting that on my birth date.

That's fine though. Eventually humanity will have been doing novels so long that you'll get Famous Writers Born Today on any date 365 days of the year, plus the ones born on Leap Day.

The stories are all around you.

Anything can remind you of one that needs to be written. The stories that haven't been written yet are infinite. Try the parrot prompt. Maybe in yours it's not even a magic spell, it's a line of code that solves the problem for a programmer who becomes a millionaire on it or a hacker who's trying to save lives cracking the terrorist hackers' site. Maybe a detective gets the killer's password to his digital souvenir collection from the parrot because the killer said it out loud too many times. You can do anything with the Parrot Prompt.

Or any other prompt you happen to see or hear or trip on during any day while doing anything else. Just jot them down. The good ones - the ones that absolutely must be told by you and no one else could do it right - they will keep coming up like that proverbial bad penny until you can't stand it and have to craft the final version.

Enjoy your subscription. They pile up fast, sometimes more than half a dozen a day get delivered.

Monday, January 30, 2012

3 Day Novel Contest and Winter Pacing

Except that I did win the Three Day Novel Contest in 2011. I have a finished short novel that came out very well, it's even had a first edit on it to knock off the worst problems right at the start.

It's worth the fee to formally enter the contest. That pushed me to my best efforts. This year's was a lot better than last year's book. This year, I finished the rough draft in 48 hours and had a full day for editing. 2010, I managed to edit the front half or so and then quality dropped, because I didn't have time to go through the whole thing. The manuscript had name change problems, various minor continuity errors and simple typos that I could have fixed if I'd had the time to go through it.

That little book is more salable than previous Three Day Novels, especially if I go through it again and give a full month to the edits, refining it in detail to the best of my current skills.

If I want to win the contest someday, the next step is to control my budget so that I've got the spending money to purchase four or five previous winners. That'll give me a better idea of the market's slant - of which book idea is most likely to win right at the outset. Ideally, I'll wind up reading them at night for a couple of months before the contest so that I've got the feel of it and write something those judges particularly enjoy. Make the best match between my concepts and the market as well as writing to length and editing within the 72 hours.

That's no guarantee either. Nothing is. Like all contests, the Three Day Novel judges winnow the field on any definable problem or mistake till they have a smaller number of entries they love that have top quality. Then they have to make hard choices and agree on one to publish that year.

They've been doing it for thirty years and they are pretty fair about not choosing on genre. Science fiction and fantasy novels have won in the past. So have mysteries and romance and other genres I don't do. One strategy to watch for might be to not do the genre that won last year or the year before, because they might use that as a short cut to keep the final round clear - avoid giving the impression that any one genre always wins.

So there it is, those are my thoughts on an expected outcome. It doesn't mean my book wasn't good. It only means they didn't choose it this year. What I know down in my gut is that last year's was better than the year before - so I've come out way ahead. Especially when I edit all of them and start shipping them to e-publishers who like short novels!

Sorry about the long hiatus. Even in San Francisco, winter weather seems to set off my arthritis. I literally slept through Christmas awake only for a short phone call with my family to hear my grandkids happily playing with their presents and my beloved daughter sing to me on the phone. It was a wonderful holiday but I ate my Christmas Dinner feast the night before and wasn't awake enough to prepare all the goodies on that day.

Living with disabilities does sometimes result in not keeping schedules. Catching up for the month when all the overexertion caught up to me has been where most of January went. I'm now finally starting to get caught up - it's hard to lose several weeks of doing nothing at all but sleeping like my cat.

Next year I'll have a better strategy for that too - make sure all of the year's scheduled deadline projects are done before November starts! Then devote November to Nanowrimo and the winter to blogging and working on my books, keep a slower physical pace that allows for some serious time off. I was carrying art commissions that got seriously delayed by those sick days.

When this is my first year in a new place, even though I lived here 30 years ago, I've got to find out what seasons are good for going out doing physical things and what seasons it's best to stay in and write, or just spend the sick days reading and sleeping. It'll help to stockpile groceries and set aside cash for incidentals so that I really don't need to go out if I'm not up to it.

That's more extreme than weather doldrums are for most undisabled people. I think an even larger number of folks do fall behind in the winter without realizing why though. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is very common. It comes with short days and not getting outdoors or getting enough sunlight. If you're in the southern hemisphere, you get it while we have summer in the north.

Sometimes it's caused by Vitamin D deficiency. If it gets severe, see a doctor about it. I've now got jewel-bright bluish green clear pills to take once a week with a horse-sized super-dose of Vitamin D. They helped me get back on track at least with accomplishing indoor things and did a lot to knock out the winter blues. Doing your best to get some sunlight is good too. Fighting the winter blues can be done, just think through it and try things that improve your outlook.

The other thing about winter is that it's a really good time to rest up physically and get going on your writing. If you're drug out physically and don't feel like fighting the weather to go paint outdoors or run outside to play games, maybe curling up with your laptop and turn your grumpy attitude to a fault finding mission on your Nanowrimo manuscript can make it the best time of year for literary aspirations. There's less to do. There's fewer distractions. There's lots of time if you're not holding down two jobs.

The best thing about working on writing or editing during the winter months is that it will help fight the discouragement. Count every page edited, every paragraph written as a real achievement, pat yourself on the back for it. Small daily successes at something physically easy can help you keep up your morale when it hurts to go outside and your fingers get stiff at the bus stop even in the new gloves. Or that other bus sloshed past and doused you up to your chest in icy mud. Or you had to shovel the sidewalk and your back is screaming at you to sit down and rest!

That's the time to have a hot drink, boot the machine and see if you can catch all the typos today, or look at the plot overview to see whether there's a new scene that needs to be inserted.

Enjoy. I'll try to post more frequently again. When the weather turns nicer, maybe I'll get in the habit of weekly posts again. If it's habit, it's much easier to get it done!