Category: Fiction

This is It. This is All You Get.

This is It. This is All You Get.

Two weeks ago, I decided to try a writing experiment. If you ever think, “Man, I never have time to write,” this is probably something worth trying.

For the past several years, I’d been working on my novel only on the weekends rather than throughout the week. I consciously decided this because when you’re a freelance writer and editor, it’s hard to put appropriate mental distance between the writing you do for clients and the writing you do for yourself, hence the weekend-only idea made logical sense. Of course, quite often my writing time on the weekends wouldn’t pan out due to us all having plans throughout the day, and by the end of the day, writing motivation is already gone.

After talking with one of my author clients, Kira A. McFadden, a few weeks ago, she mentioned something about trying to take an hour each day to work on personal stuff. Now, this was sound advice, of course. However, I’d tried that before, but it never worked out because “other people’s work” always ended up sliding into the hour I had set aside for personal stuff, and I’m a writer, so procrastination and bad time management are things I excel in. And to compound things, even on the weekends, I’d noticed that I’d been struggling to manage even 1,000 words (my self-imposed single-writing-session quota) in an afternoon. Now, I’m not a lightning-fast writer by any stretch of the imagination—I used to average 500 words of prose in an hour—but somehow it was getting to where I was taking three or four hours just to bang out 1,000 words. And this was not from lack of interest in the story. Far from it.

Back in the old days, I used to preach constantly about Chuck Palahniuk’s writing motivation method—I still do, in fact—which is especially useful when you’re just not feeling it on any given day. With Chuck’s method, you sit in a chair and set yourself a kitchen timer for one hour. You can do whatever you want in that hour, but you have to sit in the chair and at least TRY to write during that hour—no Facebook, no solitaire or whatever, just your word processor. Once the timer dings, you’re free to blow the writing off for the day and go do whatever, regardless of how much you got done. But during that hour, you’re at the desk in front of the word processor, and the sneaky trick is that usually when the timer dings, you’re so into what you’re working on that you keep right on going. I used to use this approach long ago, but in past years, motivation to write was never the problem (unless it was super late at night, and then motivation just goes out the window). I could easily sit at my desk for a few hours and not feel like I was really getting anywhere, so Chuck’s method wasn’t what I needed. And when I had time on the weekends to write, I made little progress; and when I wanted to write during the week, I didn’t really have the time to commit to writing. Or at least I thought I didn’t.

So I came up with the idea for an experiment that was sort of the reverse of Chuck’s motivation trick: two weeks ago, after dinner I set a timer for one hour and told myself, “This hour is all the time you’re going to get to write today, so you darn well better make it count. When it goes off, you’re done. Hands in the air, step away from the computer. Finito.”

That timer, that “this is it, this is all you get” mentality—that’s what I needed to put me back into high gear. After two solid weeks of this experiment, I’m back to 500 words an hour, and sometimes over. And I don’t find myself sitting at my desk and think, “Man, I wish I could be doing X instead.” I sit there and think, “Once that timer goes off, THAT’S IT. That’s all the writing I can get done for today.” And it’s worked out wonderfully so far. A few times I’ve cheated and spent a few extra minutes after the timer to finish up the sentence/paragraph/though that I was working on, but that’s about it.

So in short, if you want to write but don’t think you have the time, just do the following:

  1. Give yourself about 5 minutes to review what you wrote yesterday and/or think about what today’s writing hour needs to entail.
  2. Set a timer for an hour.
  3. Sit at your word processor.
  4. Tell yourself, “This is all the writing time I’m going to get today, so I better make it count.”
  5. Write until the timer goes off (or until you reach a logical stopping point).
  6. Do the same thing the next day.
Madness Unleashed

Madness Unleashed

Some of you longtime readers might remember I wrote an entry awhile back about writing horror stories and what I think is the most effective kind of “horror” as far as I am concerned (check out the entry here, if you missed it before). Well, as it turns out, I sent all of those stories to an editor friend of mine, and after several long months of polishing (and no small amount of blood sweat and tears), those stories emerged as my first collection of short stories, Madness & Monsters.

Since writing that entry last year, I’ve come across quite a few people who share my feelings towards horror being more personal rather than just plain startling for the sake of shock. In fact, quite a number of people I’ve talked to say that they find most horror movies, especially those made during the ’80s, to be funny, which, barring some notable exceptions, was never the intent of the filmmakers. For these kinds of movie watchers to see a horror movie or read a story that doesn’t strike them as unintentionally humorous, a film or story needs to touch certain very personal nerves. Since everyone has different emotional triggers or believes in different things, for something to be truly horrific across the board, one needs to find deep and primal triggers that apply to people everywhere, regardless of who they are. That’s a hard thing to do, which is why so many films stoop to making things jump out of shadowy corners rather than having them slink out … slowly … scratching the cement floor as they come for you.

I touch on this idea in my introduction to Madness & Monsters, as the notion provided the genesis for the anthology.

Those who are interested in checking out the anthology can find more information on my news page and in my store.

A big shout-out goes to Bill Bicknell, who edited the collection for me, and to Michael Martin and layout guru Matt Heerdt (of BattleTech, Shadowrun, and Cosmic Patrol fame) for putting together a fantastic cover for me:

A Novel’s Soundtrack

A Novel’s Soundtrack

Every writer is different and has their own way of doing things that works for them. Some people might benefit from the tip, while others wouldn’t, but I’ve always found other writers’ quirky methods fascinating, even if they don’t work for me.

One of my quirky methods is I need to write with music. “That’s not very quirky,” you might say. “Lots of writers write to music.” True, but with me, not just any music will do. It needs to be instrumental, preferably a movie or even video game score. It absolutely cannot have words in it, because the words in a song lodge themselves into my brain and keep the words from making it to my keyboard. (A strange aside: I can edit to music with words in it just fine.) “Okay,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “that’s less normal, but I can still understand that.”

Well, here’s the clincher. With a few exceptions, nearly every novel and short story I’ve ever written features multiple viewpoint characters (that’s not the weird part, of course). What’s weird is that I inevitably end up embracing some kind of theme music for each point of view: a particular album or a group of songs that I feel embodies the character’s essence, mood, and tone. And what’s interesting is these themes have still stuck with me.

My first multiple viewpoint novel, an epic fantasy I wrote back in 2001 (that I hope will someday end up being the middle volume of a pentalogy), had three viewpoint characters. You had Eagan, the young kid trapped in the middle of a war he didn’t understand—all of his chapters I wrote to the Braveheart soundtrack, with a little of Lorena McKennitt’s Book of Secrets album—the instrumental pieces, of course—thrown in for good measure, specifically “Prologue,” “Marco Polo,” and “Night Ride Across the Caucasus.” Those three all have a certain kind of magic to them, I think.

Then you had Artur, the monarch who inherited a realm he didn’t feel equipped to properly lead, which ended with him fighting more battles to defend that realm than he was initially prepared to wage. His chapters were mostly written to the Gladiator soundtrack, especially the imperious-sounding battle scores. Lastly, there was Mjorra, the aging mystic who had lost his sense of purpose. His chapters were largely written to—and don’t laugh—a Yanni album called If I Could Tell You. I’m not normally one for New Age-y music, but there are a few gems on that track that really fit the mood I was going for, and for me to remember details like this even twelve years should say something. Even today, I could listen to that album’s title track on an endless loop for days.

My most recent finished novel, Spectrum, is the most ambitious multiple viewpoint novel  I’ve ever written, and even in this one, the idea of character themes continued.

Gretta, the abandoned biologist with no home to return to, she got the hauntingly tragic and beautiful Whale Rider score. Jun, one of the last surviving leaders of his race, got the I am Legend soundtrack, which helped drive home his world-on-my-shoulders feeling. Lora, the wandering young girl frightened of her own shadow, merited the childish darkness of Pan’s Labyrinth with occasional smatterings of the Alan Wake video game soundtrack. (If you haven’t listened to the Alan Wake score yet, then do yourself a favor and go find a copy: it is seriously one of the best creepy soundtracks to write to. If you ever write anything supernatural, strange, twisted, or suspenseful, that soundtrack is your secret weapon. Trust me. Also, the game is amazingly atmospheric, and the story is fantastic too, if you’re into that sort of thing.) Now, for the character of Reinard, I honestly can’t recall any one specific throughput music for him, which makes complete sense considering he’s the mercurial character of the story. Sometimes he’s not even quite sure whose side he’s on. Lastly, we have Adlar, the emperor who believes himself divine. He ended up getting the Gladiator treatment again, but instead I wrote him more to the Commodus music scenes: “Patricide” and “Am I Not Merciful?” were absolutely perfect for the mood I wanted. Granted, I used a touch of other music here and there—The Village, Deus Ex (the original game soundtrack, not the newest one), Ergo Proxy (a futuristic anime series), and Fate/stay night (a fantasy anime series) also got a fair amount of usage—but by and large, the music previously mentioned had a big part to play in shaping the tone of the novel.

Got a favorite soundtrack that you use in your own writing? Let me know. I’m always on the lookout for my next character’s theme music.

Grabbing the Continuity Iron

Grabbing the Continuity Iron

Finally finished the continuity pass on the latest novel, which now has a working title of Spectrum, and copies have gone out to my test readers.

In just about every novel I’ve written, no matter how much advance planning I did before principal writing, the first three chapters or so always need work before I can give copies to my first round of test readers. A lot of the writing I do–even work based (loosely) in reality–requires world building, and even if I spend months or years adding details to this world before I start writing the book, most of that world building occurs during the writing. A significant amount of it happens after those first three chapters, and over the years I’ve learned that a lot of the terms and ideas that gestated at the beginning of the novel are either supplanted or made obsolete by world-building elements later in the novel. So each novel of mine, almost without fail, requires me to go back into those first three chapters and iron out all the inconsistencies that don’t fit with the rest of the story.

With Spectrum, I had a definite, clear vision of the world and how it worked, but the initial terminology I came up with for several ideas ultimately fell flat. For example, I had a religious term that factored into one of the belief systems, and as I went on, that concept didn’t mesh with the story at all. During the continuity pass, all occurrences of that term got yanked.

For those who are writing novels that entail a lot of world building, don’t get too hung up on specific terminology in your story. If you have a concept, gadget, creature, race, nation, or whatnot that needs a name and your first few stabs at naming seem to fall short, take heart. Odds are you’ll probably end up grabbing that continuity iron after the first draft and either change the term or iron it out altogether, so there’s no real need to get hung up on arriving at the “perfect name.” Rather than let yourself get stuck, leave a placeholder and come back to it later. A nice writing trick is to put <TK> (short for “to come”) in your ms to remind yourself to deal with the item later. “TK” (especially in caps and ever more so with the greater-than/less-than signs) hardly ever occurs in natural English writing. I’ve also seen people use “XX.” Just don’t forget to search through the whole ms for these placeholders before you submit. I’ve seen some published newspaper articles in my day with the <TK> notation left intact.