The Wrong Type of Crazy

If you haven't been following the story from the beginning, here's the summary. In 2009 I challenged myself: finish a novel or give up writing. I had way too many starts and way way way too few finishes. So this was it. I had a new job. I had a long commute with dedicated writing time. Get it done or give it up.

Happily, I did finish a novel (BLACK MAGIC AND BARBECUE SAUCE), two in fact (WANTED: CHOSEN ONE, NOW HIRING [which has since been renamed WITH A CROOKED CROWN]), and my pursuit of professional publication began in earnest. I wrote novels, queries, synopses, thank you letters, blog posts, twitter tweets, and so on and so forth. I took this seriously and knuckled down so I could endure rejection and enjoy success. Well, benchmarks I consider success as the professional publication part remains elusive. Still, full requests and the like are pretty thrilling. I've met some cool authors along the way and cool agents too. I've learned a hell of a lot and tried to teach a little, too.

One thing I've learned about the other people in this craft is that we share a lot of similarities in terms of emotional states, emotional stresses, emotional sensitivity in the like. While I will not limit this to authors but would go so far as to apply it to so many artists, creative types seem to have an increased level of empathy. You might hear this as soft-skinned or over-reacting or being a pussy. Whatever. We feel pain at 11 when the meter should only go up to 10. And not only our own, but others too. We empathize because we we explore how people work. It's how we create characters. We watch people. We measure what they do and how they act. We contrast what people say versus what they do and we find the inconsistencies. We explore motivations, watch lies (to themselves or to others), and let the drama play out because all of it is life's story that we want to twist and retell in our own way.

Problem is, this empathy isn't just a switch that turned on when we decided we wanted to write. It's been there forever and there was no explaining why the overly sensitive five year old was freaking out about something that seemed so minor to his parents because someday he was going to be a writer.

I think that's why so many artists are messed up emotionally. They've been running at 11 their entire lives and that is going to create neuroses. It is that damage that allows us to find pathos and tell an amazing story, to plumb the depths of broken life and show the heart one has to endure such hardship.

It also allows for a lot of self-doubt. What if I'm not broken correctly? I often write about a character that has to do the right thing at his own expense, or a person that puts duty before self. It applies order and logic to the chaos, but what if rather than painting with such amazing lines, I should be creating form from chaos. Paint outside the lines and make it amazing. What if how I endured years of being at 11 isn't what's necessary to be great at what I want to do? Don't be crisp and clean. Be loud and hectic. Put our guitar up to the speaker and hear all that feedback and find the music in it.

I'm broken wrong. I broke and taped it back together when I should have just enjoyed the two different pieces separately.

Oh my!

I've been sick, which has left me a lot of time not writing and a lot of time thinking of what I've done in the last three years. The feedback I've received. The success and the failures. The successes of friends who are going on to great things while I'm essentially still in the square I was three years ago. Maybe they're broken right and I'm broken wrong. Wouldn't that be a bitch.

On an up-note, I'm getting better, which means I've started writing again. When I write I have less time for self-doubt. But I also have a partial with an agent and that always ratchets my self-doubt up to about a 15. Especially since she didn't like the full I gave her (which I thought was a stronger novel). I've piled so much onto this accomplishment and every time it doesn't work out, I start finding all the different ways why I'm not good enough. Because I live life at 11. That's how I do.


My friend Luke introduced me to Penny Arcade many years ago and it didn't click. I didn't have an X-Box and my Playstation 1 was gathering dust. I didn't get any of their jokes.

But one day in 2005 we're hanging out in his room and his screensaver is a composite of his favorite PA strips (at that time) and they were funny as hell! We went through the whole thing twice and laughed every time. So I started reading the strip regularly and have continued to do so for six years now. And of course, now I have an X-Box 360 that does not gather dust (thanks to Bioware and Valve) and I get more (but not all) of the jokes.

To continue the trend, I didn't key in on Penny Arcade TV right away. I figured it would be lame self-promotion. It turned out to be awesome self-promotion! Self-promotion has a bad stigma to it, but really this is how you want to promote your product. It's an exploration of character and voice and craft. It's funny and endearing and at the end you really wish you worked there too.

The Drawl

I've mentioned before that I've been struggling on voice with JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. It's not so much struggling as I can't find it. It's struggling in that I keep changing my mind, so the narrative text is horribly inconsistent.

Here's where I've been flipping. Take a nice classic rural drawl. Change of to a, drop the Gs off of ING (remindin' me a somethin'), swap was/were (he were/they was), add 'n to the ends of certain words (if'n), and the like.

At first this was only dialogue, but a lot of narrative text focuses on Jehovah's thought process. We think the same way we speak. Someone's grammar doesn't magically improve just because they're speaking instead of thinking. But that's easier to choose to do than to actually do.

For one thing, a lot of us drop the G off of ING anyway, but seeing the apostrophe makes us slow down and identify what's missing. That can be a big distraction when reading narrative text, so that switched back to normal ING. The next was the was/were relationship. I've tried to maintain this, but no matter how actively you write your verbs, you'll still use WAS more than any other, sometimes multiple times in the same sentence. What was quaint and distinct to begin with became burdensome and distracting.

Jehovah were certain he'd a seen such a thing afore. The last'n had kill't Lil' Petey and ate off Rick Rick's right foot. That all made no nevermind here.

Quaint. Distinct. But for 90,000 words? I just don't know.

Speaking of 90,000 words: I'm usually one that says the book is as long as the book needs to be, but seeing just how depressed the sci-fi1 market is, this isn't something I want to thumb my nose at. The thing is, I thought I was coming in too short somewhere around 35k and kind of fleshed things out. I'll have to go back and chop some of that out because I'm actually at risk of going over 90k, which I'm using as a hard ceiling for this book.

Approaching the end, I reached the book's thesis statement. The exchange includes more than one racial epithet. And while both the character and the setting make it an appropriate word choice, as a writer, it is SO hard to include. A thousand and one times I started to just scrap the entire chapter, but forced myself to finish it. It still makes my skin crawl, though.

1 And in terms of genre, I wanted to bring up dystopian fiction, but will do so in a separate post later after I've gotten some work done. Interesting things. There will be questions, so all a you that have been quiet lately prepare yourselves to comment. :)

Beware the AYRTD Bird and Invoking Rule 2a

This has been a reading week. I finished JULIET1. I'm almost half-way through CRYOBURN. I've finished the first disc of ARABIAN NIGHTS. I keep taking my Eee PC to work because I feel the need to write, but when I think of what to write next, it's not clicking. I know what I need to do, but because I've been enjoying reading, I haven't been stressing forcing myself back into things (60k and JH is complete, a mark I can hit in November if I want to posture for the NaNo writers2. What I need to do is invoke rule 2a.

I've done this once before and it proved incredibly effective. Going back to the beginning and revising the current WIP after stopping to revise a completed draft both improves the ms and gets you a feel for the voice and rhythm of the work you're continuing. It's the one time I let myself go back and revise before the entire thing is finished. I updated my first 250 words on Nathan Bransford's forum to JH given how old BM&BBQ is. It seemed a wasted opportunity to post content from that work since I am no longer actively querying it. Those new 250 words needed some serious revision. I overwrote JH's first chapter and couldn't even make it off the first page without scolding myself. (The new 250 words are derived from the original 500 words and are much better.)

So this will let me rebuild a rhythm, improve the existing work, and maybe think of some new ideas for what's still to come. This is only daunting because I don't usually have this much already complete on a novel when I invoke 2a. I have 40k words in JH. Normally I might only have 10. I don't want to get stuck at the beginning and never get to the end. That's the whole reason rule 2 exists!

1 Not as bad as the AYFKM moment, the AYRTD is when you look at the main character and shout, "Are you really that dumb?" I really enjoyed the first 350 pages of JULIET, but pages 351-400 are just one AYRTD moment after another. The entire climax is impossible if the main character didn't have the mental capacity of a bag full of hammers. She would have realized that everyone had something to gain from manipulating her and no one had been honest, and thus no decision could be made. Thankfully, she chose to mistrust people in a specific order, allowing each of them to shepherd her closer to the finale, leaving the humble reader to ask why he should care about someone unfit to produce offspring less the gene pool continue to be watered down.

Much like the entire plot dependent on the main characters miscommunicating, a plot driven by the protagonist not realizing clues that slap him/her across the face is enough to make me pull my hair out. It's one thing for clues to be cryptic, or riddles or double entendres or genuine intrigue. But when character A gives you a clue and then character B gives you a clue and they both wave the big Clue Flag and you still don't get it? I'm sorry, you're too stupid to have your own book. Go be a supporting character.

2 Really, I'm so hard on NaNo because my first experiences with it were from communities not dedicated to writing. I wasn't part of a group of writers that liked to participate. I was among the majority of NaNo participants, people who wanted to write but never found the time. The excuses were the same every year. They'd sign up to do it and then never start or only write for five days or use anything they write (like this blog post) as their word count. Whatever they could do not to do the one thing they said they really wanted to do. Sorry, but if you want to do something, do it.

Have Fun Storming the Castle

Current, non-syndicated television runs in 30 or 60 minute time slots. Of those slots, the actual program will run 20-22 minutes or 42-44 minutes respectively. Its this constraint that allows a writer--if he or she so wishes to apply herself--to know the plot, the outcome, and the bad guy (if you're watching one of the myriad procedural dramas currently on television) long before the show reaches the reveal. Often, you can know all of it within the first few minutes.

Why does the timing make a difference? Because of the other rules. You cannot have a reveal with something that hasn't already been introduced in the episode. The doorman can't have killed the young starlet if he hasn't already had some speaking lines. The audience is given the chance to figure it out. And since we write for a living, that means we balance all the other demands of story in our heads, pacing, motivation, the twist, etc.

One would think that being able to figure out a television show so early in the program would defeat the fun. And if a show is done poorly, it absolutely does. But, I am not a book snob. I like television and movies and theatre. I like visual storytelling as much as (more than?) written storytelling. I don't just have a creative writing degree. I have a playwriting degree as well.

The reason this comes to mind at the moment is because I just finished watching the season 3 opener for "Castle." Like so many of its audience, I came to the show for Nathan Fillion being nothing short of a "Firefly" fanatic. The chemistry between all the leads is what brings me back, the witty yet warm voice the show has crafted for itself. The first fifteen seconds of the season opener made me shout GOO! when it cut to black. Of course, I already knew the twist and knowing the twist made me know the whodunnit when introduced. But who cares? When a show can make you shout GOO! it's worth watching, even if you already know what's going to happen.

I keep a list of recommendations on my website that includes TV shows I watch (or did watch when they were on, *sniff* I miss you Firefly *sniff*...okay, I didn't see that until it was on DVD, which is good because I got to watch it in order). I've been debating updating that list to make it more current.

Last season's offering of NCIS was dismal, the worst of the series run, and I don't know if I can bring myself to go back. I'll give it a shot with the season opener, but I'm not holding my breath (forgive me, Gibbs).

Chuck is luring me back with season 4 even though I skipped season 3.

With Numb3rs gone (it never recovered from constantly losing the female lead other than Navi Rawat [helllooooo nurse!]) and most of the other network fare looking lame or contrived (despite the various geek-themed shows which I suspect will come off condescending, though I admit to not having watched any of them).

I have increased my cable viewing now that they're streaming or releasing on DVD. Stargate: Universe has hooked me hard where I was never interested in the previous two series.

Psych continues to please, though I wonder if it peaked in season 3.

Eureka is a pleasant new discovery, but I've burned through the first three seasons and now have to wait. *pout*

I had been watching Leverage, but they used the "jealous triangle" early in season 3 and I hate that plot line.

So, this is a healthy list, more TV than I've watched since I first returned to the small screen (I had given it up for four years but the ad for Numb3rs and the discovery of NCIS season 2 pulled me back in). My wife and I usually watch an episode to destress at the end of the day. Neither of us want television to consume our evenings from activities we find more rewarding.

But for all that, and for knowing the stories usually as soon as they start, these shows have established a voice or present their characters in such a way that I want to keep coming back regardless.

How about you? When you're not reading or writing, what kind of stories do you fill your time with?

(Anyone that mentions reality TV gets slapped. We're talking storycraft here, people!)

(As a note, I've decided to separate reality TV like any show with the name Jersey in it from the post-modern gameshow. I really enjoy the skill that goes into competitions like "So You Think You Can Dance." If the hosts and the judges weren't so obnoxious, I might watch.)

Struggling with Voice

As I get older and make a more concerted effort to write professionally, I do not write with the abandon that I did when I was young. A younger me wrote phonetically and with dialects whenever I wanted to express an accent. An older me mentions the accent, but only touches a few key words phonetically. It came from a discussion whether such abstract spellings were the best way to communicate the differences in language. Given that so many of my old stories were the quality of an inexperienced writer, I chose to go the opposite direction.

That's not the only reason. I like to include minorities. I lived in St. Louis city (demographically 66% black) and hung out in areas where I could absorb that kind of culture. Not wholly, of course, but enough I felt comfortable replicating it in words. People seem less willing to accept that, and the further I am away from living in St. Louis, trading it for the predominantly white northeast, I begin to question my own recollection of what was St. Louis living and what was from "The Wire." So, if I avoid using phonetic spelling or dialect, I avoid being called a racist or being laughed at (while they think I'm being racist but don't say it--I hate that one too).

I recently added THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN to my nook. Mark Twain is one of my literary heroes and reading the novel reminded me how much I've given up by not writing my characters speech the way they speak. I've become too scared of criticism, justified it by saying I don't want to support wrong thinking with my writing or that a person just revises the text to what they understand anyway so I'm just adding a step. But when I read the way Huck and Jim speak, I get more than the words. I get the person. I get how they think. What matters. How they process things.

THE TRIAD SOCIETY has a variety of accents, none of which I properly explore. I relegate it to urban being "it is" and rural being "tis," what I feel now is a ridiculous copout.

There is a lot of talk about the author's voice on blogs. Characters and characterization are part of that voice, but not the entirety. What I've found is that why I can maintain the novel's voice during description, I lock up when I express character voice. This needs drastic and immediate attention. Time to write with a little more abandon.

(And call me racist all you want. Go to St. Louis Ave. and Grand on May 1 [the May Day Celebration] and you'll think you've walked into a video. I shit you not.)

(If you're interested in a great people watching place for St. Louis culture, try Captain D's on Kingshighway. It's amazing how much happens at that place--or at least happened when I lived in St. Louis. If you want a darker side of the city that doesn't put you in direct gunfire, head down to the river and follow the tracks. There's some grim living down there.)