31 March 2016

Character meets World

Wednesday got away from me.  Its bound to happen when pushing for change and the best thing you can do is pick yourself up and start again, right?  

I have a few topics I could cover but the weird one on my mind right now is a show that I've been watching on SyFy (yes I know how that sounds, but I assure you, their programming quality is steadily improving) called The Magicians.  It is based on a book series by Lev Grossman, which I have not read but has been added to my list after watching the series.  

The premise sounds unoriginal - the main character discovers that he has magic and that there is a hidden world of magic-users, when he is admitted to a magical school.  Doesn't sound like anything you've ever heard of before, right?  The similarities end there however.  If Hogwarts is the relatively safe learning environment of a private well-regarded boarding school, then Brakebills Academy is the fend-for-yourself community college of magic, where you'll receive very little interest or support from the staff, who couldn't care less what you do with magic once you're out from under their wings. Tonally very different from HP, it is a place where magic is drug-like and far less wondrous.  It isn't perfect, but it is quite enjoyable.

I quickly became addicted to the show; while there are some pacing issues (which are apparently reflected in the books), the thing I love about the series are the characters.  Yes, character is everything, but that is so much harder to do than to say.  Particularly in science fiction and fantasy where often the milieu and world-building could be relegated to carry the story.  I've read plenty of those in my time; as I've gotten older I've also realized how much less investing those kinds of stories are.  In The Magicians, the characters are likable, but flawed and consistently make decisions that are justifiable but frequently terrible.  I love watching them struggle with the normal minutiae of real life compounded with a magic system that quickly proves itself incapable of easy fixes.  In fact when they do use magic it often creates more problems for them.  Layering those things makes for interested characters.  

I need to become better at this.  I don't have problems coming up with neat concepts for stories - the "idea" and "what if" elements are some of my strengths.  Divorced of a plot concept, I also thing I can create unique characters.  The difficulty lies in working these in tandem.  It boils down to a the driving force of the story.  I need to practice balancing an intriguing concept with characters whose choices drive the action, instead of being pawns to the concept.  

For me, this is a struggle, and one I'm working on.  I hope to write more short stories in order to develop this, learning in short form and applying to longer pieces.  

29 March 2016

Rainy Days and Coffee

These are a few of my favorite things.  Right now, I have both.  Not sure where I was going with this.  I'm quickly coming to the realization that if I write everyday I will have to branch out from just my meager insights into the writing process.

Currently my writing process it blocked.  I am stuck in a chapter where I collapsed three later chapters down and moved them to this location.  Except it isn't working and I don't know how to fix it.  So my progress has slowed to a snail's pace.  I'm pushing through it, just slower than I would like.
The rain just turned into snow.

Part of the problem is external and has nothing to do with the chapters.  My anxiety with being unemployed is at an all time high, and yes, I could go grab a quick part-time serving job or its ilk (and probably will have to once my mentality catches up to practicality) but there is a piece of me, digging in his heels and resisting because I feel I should be past this.  I shouldn't be clamoring for shit outta-high-school work.  Going back to something like that makes me feel I haven't progressed in the last 12 years.  Perhaps I haven't.

The huskies are enjoying the snow.

But it isn't simply a matter of pride either.  Going back to a job that is dead end feels like, well, a dead end.  I want to dedicate myself to work that I love doing, work I'm passionate about, that is creative and filled with opportunities to learn new things.  I don't want to job hop for survival anymore, I want to thrive.  That's where I want to take my writing.  A career in writing is a long term solution, I'm afraid.  Even if by some ungodly miracle the first thing I wrote was immediately picked up and sold (and it won't be), the turn around time is forever, and you have to sell like a rockstar to make enough for living.  None of this is likely.  Perhaps eventually I could have enough back catalogue to make a living, but for now, something else is on the menu for day-to-day minutia.  I just don't know what.

I need more coffee.

Okay, this is plenty of midlife crisis angst (only in midlife crises you get to buy a sports car and I can't afford that), so I'll be done for the day.  Hopefully your path is clear and well lit, friend.

Inspirational quote for today:

“Writing, therefore, is also an act of courage. How much easier is it to lead an unexamined life than to confront yourself on the page? How much easier is it to surrender to materialism or cynicism or to a hundred other ways of life that are, in fact, ways to hide from life and from our fears. When we write, we resist the facile seduction of theses simpler roads. We insist on finding out and declaring the truths that we find, and we dare to out those truths on the page.”  - Jack Heffron

28 March 2016

Inspiration Playlists

I have found that I really enjoy writing with music in the background.  Everyone has personal preferences, of course, but for narrative pieces it is a boon to my process.  I used to be one of those people who thought I could only put pen to paper (metaphorically, of course) in total abject silence.   Aside from being impractical for anyone who has a life or family, I found that music added a level to my writing I didn't expect.  Tone, set by a song, absolutely starts to creep into my work.  I feel it inspires me, thrusting my brain into the mindset of the world I'm working in.

So what do I listen to?  I don't listen to music with lyrics - those I do find distracting while searching for my own words.  This tends to leave me with a lot of scores and soundtracks.  As I work on a project, I will build a playlist for that particular work - utilizing albums and tracks that have the right feeling for it.  Because they are all lyric free, I tend not to get sick of the music.

A.N. has definitely benefitted from this - and was the first piece I tried music with my writing.  The playlist consists of several thematic scores:  Book of Eli, Dredd, Bladerunner, Ink, Mass Effect and others.  I'm curious if anyone else listens to music and how they decide what inspires them.  

27 March 2016

Shoutout to My Word-Smithing Homies

Today, for my short weekend thought, I am giving it up for my writing group.  We decided to form this a year (or two?) ago and it has been one of the best things to happen to me as far as writing is concerned.  Having the evaluation of your peers is great - I can immediately temp how what I've written is going over.  Things that make sense in my head don't always on the page and the feedback is incredible.  Their advice has been really useful to this revision process.

More than that however is simply that having our monthly meeting has helped pushed me to write more.  I've elevated my writing from a once-a-month hobby to several times a week, knowing that we would get together and discuss it.  It's a little bit of pressure, but good in my case.  I don't like sending subpar stuff out (which, let's face it, will happen anyway; the purpose of a writing group is to help improve the writing - an unnecessary endeavor if it all flows perfect the first time) so I work harder on it than I would otherwise.  

An additional bonus is that we are all such different writers, it is thrilling to read their works and find yourself getting sucked into stories you had no idea were coming.  My writing group is made up of very talented people.  Also we're pretty fun.  And funny.  Unlike your writing group (Oh damn! I just threw down!)  I love it and so grateful to be part of it.  Here's a big thanks to you peeps.

26 March 2016

Work Lunch Musings

Understandably, my weekend posts will be shorter.  Because I gots shit to do, man.

I worked on a good portion of that chapter I needed to completely rewrite and, as tends to happen, I discovered that while some of my basic concepts were good, they weren't presented in the right way.  Once I adjusted things to align with the main character better, I found the book was better for it.  Things I wanted to touch on naturally found their way in and instead of fighting against the nature of the character and scene, the process found unexpected ways to set me up where I should be.  It was nice, and honestly, I like the new stuff infinitely better than the old.

I had lunch with my sister yesterday, who is also a writer, and enjoyed getting to "talk shop" about where we were in our books.  I'm very proud of her; she already has a legitimate agent anxiously requesting to see her stuff.  Very cool.  But these conversations, always edifying anyway, help to amp me up and return to the work.

One of the things we discussed was about our revision method.  Thus far I have (aside from all the deep plot changes, technology, world building and character arc stuff that is necessary) tried to focus on two guiding principals as I revise, chapter by chapter:

1. If it's not something you would be excited about reading, it needs to go.  
I know it is inherently true that if I dislike what I'm writing, find it boring or am going through the motions, I cannot expect a reader to enjoy it.  This is sort of fun because it allows me really amp up scenes sometimes, setting them in cool locals, create unique situations or flesh out the world a bit further.  Asking myself that first question creates a lot of backstory to the world this takes place in that I wouldn't have otherwise.

2. How does this advance the story?
The second question keeps me moving forward to the end goal.  I tend to write rambling and aimless scenes, or worse repetitive scenes, mimicking previous chapters.  It is weirdly simple for me to fall into this trap and continually asking this question forces me to boil down why the scene is in the book.  If it isn't helping, it doesn't need to be there.  The style of this book in particular is a pulpy action thriller, so brevity and straightforwardness have been my truest companions.  These questions are hardly new, but I feel like they're keeping on track to a readable novel.

As the book becomes harder to write, the more other projects beckon to me.  So far I've been fairly good about shutting it down and telling myself I am not allowed to work on another novel (no matter how much it calls to me) until I am finished with this one.  I'm in one such hard stage now, and the next piece calls to me with a siren's song.

I have an end in sight though!  I will finish this (3rd) draft, then give it to my writing group, and some beta readers to critique and give feedback (scary).  With their notes in hand, I will give this one more polish, adjusting language, and major and minor issues that are brought to the table via peer review.  At that point, I just don't think I can improve upon it until I am A) further along in my career or B) without an editor to delve further in.  So I will try to shop it.  While doing that, the next novel will get worked upon.

No doubt the moment I start that work, a third will present itself and demand attention.

25 March 2016

Struggling with Cosmetics

Day 2.

The struggle begins.  Can I interject here how tired I am of people saying "the struggle is real"? It's ubiquitously applied to stupid things.  There aren't enough donuts.  Is the struggle real? It's a small quibble, but I think there's just an over saturation of the phrase at this point.  Like the "said no one ever" or "keep calm and..." campaigns of a few years ago.

I am not sure what to post already.  That's a good sign.  Yesterday I sat down to the computer to work on my novel and immediately enjoyed that fickle stage where everything except writing seems interesting.  Facebook wants checking, texts are coming in, you remember suddenly that you intended to google how to make your own pizza dough, etc...  I did finally nail down and work on it, but the changes felt primarily cosmetic.  Fixing language or names and not addressing the real inner workings of the chapter.  This current chapter of A.N is taking me into a massive adjustment phase of the plotting of this book.

First, I should say that this novel has been so much fun to write.  For years - I mean like 20+ year - I have had a fantasy trilogy in my head that spilled out into notebooks, maps, and filled binders.  I have several huge folders overflowing with information on this fantasy story.  One year for NaNo, I thought "Yes! Let's finally write this bitch!"  I managed to get my 50k words, but only cultivated boring, repetitious chapters of too-similar situations and managed to turn some of my main characters into amoral sociopaths.  I came to the realization that this beast I had created was too much for me, as an inexperienced writer, to wrangle.  I had no idea how to tell the story and tell it well.  Still don't. It is one that I may have to revisit down the road.

So my next venture was to take a seat of the pants approach, with a concept I had, but hadn't fully explored.  Let me tell you, it was exhilarating to write.  Being unbound by the years of planning and themes I had crafted for the other allowed me to really explore the insane world I was creating.  The vibe of the book is a very 80's sci-fi film with a dash of mystery thrown in.

The subsequent drafts have ramped up the difficulty because, while I have a manuscript, it is so problematic.  Character arcs have needed work; pacing and structure have both been issues. Please refer to my inexperience with storytelling on this large of a scale.  Plus, keeping track of all the plot threads throughout a novel, the consistency of world building, and a murder mystery mixed into it... The piece is ambitious for me.

If there's something I do well it is to allow inspiration to scale my ambitions.  That doesn't mean I create a lot of ambitious things - usually it stalls projects instead because I fall prey to the idea, "Yeah, this is neat, but wouldn't it be cool if..."  Often it results in overcomplicating something  otherwise straightforward.  I'm working on balancing this, because I don't believe it is inherently bad, I just need to understand what is manageable and what isn't.

Anyway, today I get to go back and tackle what I worked on yesterday, but here's the annoying clincher: when I finished yesterday, I knew it wasn't right and that the easiest way to fix all this was to start the chapter over.  So my cosmetic changes were largely a waste since I will be tossing the chapter and rewriting it completely today.  I have to move some events from later in the book into this portion.  It fixes the flow and allows for a better ramp up to the ending (I think... here's hoping my writing group agrees with me).

The more I wax on about this, the more it is making me anxious to keep writing here instead of on A.N. so that's all she wrote for today!

24 March 2016

The Reckoning.

My, it has been a while.

I haven't found my way to this blog in years, but upon logging in, I learned that someone else has been enjoying it.  I had several views on March 20th, 2016.  While it's probably just online prostitutes or deposed Namibian kings searching for a bank account to share their $400 million dollars with, it's still flattering that with zero effort, people (or bots) manage to find their way to this blog.

Bad news for you, old chum.  I'm revamping the blog with a new purpose: Once a Murderer is being converted into my writing blog.  "Aren't most blogs for writing?" you ask.   Yes, unless they're on tumblr.  Then they're for porn.  But this one is now going to be about my endeavors at writing.  I honestly thought about starting a new one, but sheer laziness (and the fact that I love this blog's title) got the best of me.  If I'm not doing anything else with it, why not?  Repurposing is all the rage anyway.  If you doubt that, ask Pinterest how to put a salad in a mason jar or grow a garden in a palette.  Don't act like you're too disappointed.  No guarantees I won't still post random thoughts.  Besides, owning your own blog is so 2008.

So what does this mean?  Well, for starters, it might mean that I'll lose some of my 12 valuable followers who originally came to my blog for... musings on mannequins?  I don't know.  What it actually means is that much like some of my friends (here's looking at you, Swede-lady) who already post awesome writings and poems, I'll be using this to explore my journey into storytelling and improvement.   I'll be posting thoughts on writing, the process, the difficulties, exercises, and pieces of my work.  I also welcome feedback, should anyone feel like giving it.

Now, let's get down to brass tacks.

I want to write.

It couldn't appear sillier when spelled out on the page.  Regardless, I have been unemployed for a little while and it's made me reassess what I'm doing with my life.  Having hit the age where I feel increasingly locked into a future based on financial decisions and "smart" career choices, it became a now-or-never moment.  This factored into my decision (along with bad management and pathetically poor returns for the work I put in) to leave my job and step into the unknown.

For me, it really is the unknown and it has been terrifying. Only a couple months have passed, but since I was fifteen I have never been without a job for this length of time (and don't bring up my mission, which was more (fruitless) work than any full time position).  It's stressful.  I don't like it, and I know I'll have to figure something out.  Part of that process has been assessing what to do moving forward.  Always I return to storytelling.

I love storytelling.  It's in my soul.  I enjoy good stories, and I want to be able to tell them too.  It's what attracted to me to filmmaking, writing, and nerdy RPG games.  If I'm to be satisfied with a career, it needs this element.   This isn't a discourse on why stories are great or meaningful to the human race, so I'll just trust that you can accept this.  Also, I don't care if you can't.

Some of you may know that I have already been trying to write a lot more.  With the support of incredible friends and fellow writers, I have attempted NaNoWriMo four times (with two wins, for what that's worth) to jump start my interest.  Over time I have ramped up my writing and am currently in the process of a third draft of my first complete novel.  It's exhausting, but awesome to see this thing take shape.

Until now, it's been a hobby for me.  Or at least, I've treated it like a hobby.  This morning, after much angst on my future, I googled writing.  I've done this 10,000+ times.  The internet has been the greatest resource ever to a person like me who enjoys dabbling in everything.  I didn't expect to come across anything special, since I regularly read author blogs and listen to podcasts on writing, publishing, etc.  But I did.

A great article by author Hugh Howley on becoming a writer turned up. I know nothing about him, so I can't vouch for his work, but his article on working at writing struck me just right today.  Essentially he advocates that becoming a (published) writer is an insane amount of work.  The post is filled with a lot of concise advice; nothing necessarily new, but put together in an action plan I can understand, with the underlying theme being, stop making this a hobby and treat it like something you really want to do.

Basically, he advocates ten things, with the first five being the most important aspects of success:

1. Make a Long Term Plan

Howley's plan was to essentially write two novels a year for X-number of years to practice his craft and gain a backlog of work.  I can't argue with this though the thought of that much work is overwhelming.  As I said, my own first "real" novel has been the process of about 2-3 years.  I don't think that's bad, but it isn't fast-tracking me either.  I am trying to figure if I should personalize this, but if I dedicate as much time to writing as I ought, it also shouldn't be impossible.  With NaNo, I wrote an entire first draft in one month.  It's also a rushed piece that required a great deal of story restructuring.  I think I'm capable of this, it's just scary to commit to so much.  Which is why I should.  Okay, let's do it.  2 novels a year.

2. Read

I already read.  I love fantasy, science fiction, and horror.  What I don't do is read outside my genre as much as I should.  I need to read more thrillers, more historical novels, more fiction and certainly more non-fiction.  I will compile a list of books I'm wanting to read (with a nice genre mix) and post it on here.  Additionally, when I finish a book I'll craft-specific thoughts on it; you know, things learned or disliked or loved.

3. Practice

Howley points out that you shouldn't bother with creating an amazing bestseller.  Right now as you right you should be trying to find yourself one fan.  One person who wants to read what you wrote and then wants more from you.  This happens by writing.  Lots.  Surprise, he also says to start a blog and post daily.  So here we are.  As stated, I'll muse on writing here but I also intend start sharing my work on here.  That's scary, but necessary if I'm to improve.  My daily posts won't be nearly as long, I guarantee, so don't be disappointed if you only get a line or two from me some days...

4. Daydream

Got this one under wraps.  I remember once asking a friend back in high school if it was normal to have stories always running through your head.  Their answer assured me it was not.  I guess that's part of what Bukowski meant by, "if it doesn’t come bursting out of you, in spite of everything, don’t do it."  Writers are a different breed because we can't help living in two worlds.  It isn't even a choice.  When I am alone (and unfortunately occasionally in the company of others) I am daydreaming about people, places, situations that exist only in my upstairs.

 5. Learn to Fail

 This will come as I start putting myself out there.  I accept that I am not the best writer in the world, that first drafts are word vomit, and that the craft takes practice and time.  I vow to be open to criticism, and that critique makes me a better writer.  It also helps beat back ego and keep my writing humble.  So much easier said than done.

6. Plot Trumps Prose

Writing pretty sentences isn't what being a published novelist is about.  It's a worthy endeavor, but the important part is that you can TELL A GREAT STORY.  This is a much more elusive thing than strictly structured rules of grammar.  Because if I craft a gorgeously boring story, no one will read it.  My trials with this first novel have shown me I have a long way to go at getting better at this.  To improve I need to read more on writing structure, attend conferences and get feedback from peers.  I have an excellent writing group and am hoping to put together another more local one that can meet in person for face to face for discussion and review.  It is hard to see outside your own work after staring at it for so long.

7. Live Fully and Live Cheaply

This is about lifestyle changes to dedicate yourself to writing.  Because it isn't likely to be a hugely lucrative career unless you're a King or a Rowling.  Most of us aren't.  He argues that you can make a living at it, but you need to understand what that looks like.  For those of us working on breaking in, the cheaper you live the less you need and the more time you can dedicate to writing.  I am already learning lessons of frugality, being unemployed and all.  That said, it doesn't mean you can't experience life - particularly in talking to people and learning more about the world. Experience new things.  It will make you a better writer.  I'm not a huge extrovert - being out of my element is something I still struggle with overcoming.  I know I need to be better at talking to strangers and embracing situations outside of my comfort zone.

8. Network

Writing groups, conferences, cons, etc.  This relates to #7 for me.  I have attended writing conferences before, but need to make a concerted effort to do better and meet people.  Writers, editors, publishers... there is something to be said for cultivating those relationships even if you choose a "non-traditional" publishing means.

9. Write Great Shit

A bit redundant, since I feel this comes back to the process of practice, learning structure, reading others, and getting feedback to improve with.  This is the result of a continual journey for improvement.

10. Find your Voice

Another result.  While every writing book and class from here to mars will tell you to develop this, it really only comes from doing all of the above.

So there you have it.  A long winded entry on my re-shaped blog.  Hopefully you'll find it interesting, and if not, go read someone else's blog.  No one is forcing you to be here.  Unless my blog becomes required reading for North Korea.  Hopefully that's not your situation. So welcome to Once a Murderer.

By way of update, right now I am currently working on a post-apocalyptic noir sci-fi novel that for now I simply refer to as A.N.  It's where most of my writing efforts have being going as of late.  I have a screenplay that needs some revisal, and a couple of short stories I'm working on.  I also have the start of another novel that is calling, the more time I spend on my current on.

Now if you'll excuse me, I still have a novel to write today.