Maintaining Momentum

If you’re like me, you pursue your creative passion while relying on another line of work to pay the bills. Because said line of work makes such mundane things like a roof over one’s head and regular, generally healthy and digestible meals possible, it really can’t be ignored. Not for long, anyway.

My day job has intense peaks and troughs and when I’m busy, I’m insanely so. In such busy periods (one of which – a week of pure hell – ended very recently) I find I have little energy for writing when I get home at the end of the day. However, as I’ve discussed previously it’s essential to maintain some kind of momentum – otherwise it’s possible to get in the habit of putting aside creative endeavours for any old thing, and the next thing you know you’re running in the soul-sucking hamster wheel of life. So what is a writer (or any creative type – what I’m about to share could be applied to almost any medium, I’m sure) to do?

First, it helps to have several projects on the go – just enough to allow you to switch to something else if you find you’re growing frustrated or bored with your current project, without having so many you feel overwhelmed. It’s even better if your projects are at different stages, so if you switch projects you’re actually doing something different. I usually have 2-4 stories on the go at any given time, in various states of completion. If I get tired working on the first draft of one piece, I can switch to editing a second draft of another, or tweaking another (a third or fourth draft) that was rejected by an editor. I’ve also branched out a bit from my initial genre (horror) into science fiction, so when I switch gears I may also be switching genres. Regardless, even if I am not drafting, I am still making progress.

Second, sometimes it’s good just to unplug entirely and read. I try to read novels recommended to me by friends (writerly or otherwise), but there are others that have been on my hit list for a while, and when I can I take advantage of the down time. Sometimes, I’ll get ideas, too.

Finally, it helps to have other creative outlets – and if they’re related to your artistic passion all the better. In my case, I am involved in two monthly roleplaying groups, one of which I run as Game Master. Both groups consist of interesting people playing interesting characters who are involved in intricate storylines – it’s like an interactive novel. I always come away from a gaming session with anecdotes and inspirations that could very well lead to story ideas, but even if they don’t the intensely fun and creative environment really energizes me. I recommend writers, in particular, give gaming a try to stoke their creative fires.

There you go…some lemonade recipes for when life tosses you a lemon or two…

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The Challenge of Flash Fiction

If you ever hang around writers long enough, you will invariably hear them gripe about the difficulties of writing a novel. To be fair, a lot of those complaints have merit…

• A novel needs a larger number of characters to sustain it, each of whom must be memorable and develop as the story progresses (because in a novel with 100 characters, for example, the reader will always remember the 3 or 4 who were poorly developed).

• Unlike short stories, most novels need more than a single storyline to be engaging. Sub-plots are often used to spur character development and explore various ideas that can’t be handled in the central narrative, but everything must tie together by the end. This requires considerable planning on the writer’s part.

• And then there’s the time involved in writing the novel itself, editing, rewriting, more editing, and then sending it off in the hopes that someone will pick it up. And while you wait for a response, you start another novel…

But there are challenges to writing at the other end of the spectrum – the domain of flash fiction. Flash fiction, as the name implies, is fiction of a very brief nature – usually under 1,000 words. At first glance, you might think flash fiction would be incredibly easy to write because it’s so short, but therein lies the challenge: a flash fiction story still needs a plot, characters, and some sort of conflict that gets resolved (or at least promises to be resolved) by story’s end. However, there’s no space for purple prose, excessive adverbs, pages of internal monologue, or unnecessary characters. The writer has to be focused, and be prepared to make the reader work.

I tried my hand at very short (micro) flash fiction recently, for an annual contest called AE Micro. The word limit was 200 words (including the title), and the theme given was “space”. I managed to write the basic story in about 220 words, and then pared it back to accommodate some additional nuances (because the piece focused on action-oriented dialogue, and I still had to provide story background and give the reader an idea of the relationship between the two characters). Then I had to cut it back yet again to meet the word limit (which was firm). It was 199 words in the end.

While the piece didn’t make the cut in the end, it was still a rewarding experience because it forced me to really focus on the key elements of the story. That sort of discipline, if applied to short stories and novels, can only be helpful.

Roleplaying Games: Another Kind of Writing

When writing fiction, I want my work to have staying power long after the reader puts the piece down. So much so, that the reader will re-read it, again and again. Getting a reader to commit some of their finite time to reading your work again requires some extra effort: stories and characters can’t just be “good” or “memorable”; they have to seize the reader and fling them into an immersive sensory experience, such that when they close the covers they can be content that reading your story was time well spent.

The desire is no less strong when writing for roleplaying games, but the challenge is different. A well-crafted work of fiction can be engrossing, inspire the imagination, and evoke strong emotions, but in the end the reader is having a story told to them. While a good roleplaying game will get the reader’s creative neurons firing, it is different in one important way: It is interactive storytelling. The players play their characters in a shared game world (i.e., a story), narrated by the game master (GM), that is being written as they go on their adventures, which are published by companies in booklets called “modules”. Unlike a conventional book, a roleplaying story only ends if the characters die, or everyone decides to stop playing.

Because adventures are only as exciting as the players and GM make them, the work of the roleplaying writer in crafting a compelling scenario (which can be considered the building materials for the shared roleplaying experience the gaming group will create) is critical. This is where the concept of “value-added” comes in. Because a roleplaying module isn’t a book that can be casually re-read, the roleplaying writer has to throw in something to encourage the GM to return to the module once the main adventure is over. A good way to do this is by adding extra information and other resources that can be used anytime. The easiest to create are memorable recurring characters (with enough background information to ensure that the GM refers to the module again), historical background that provides enough detail to hopefully inspire the GM, new magical items and other treasures, and of course new monsters that can be used anywhere in the game world. In this way, the module evolves from being a one-shot product into a useful resource. All this requires good planning beforehand, and extra work.

An example of how this comes together in an adventure module can be seen if we look at “adventure hooks”. These are scenarios in outline form, usually placed at the end of a module, to give the GM ideas for further adventures. To do this, the writer needs to add locations to the region in which the action takes place (on top of those that are central to the main adventure) that the players can explore after their quest is finished (or during, if they get distracted or need to wait for something plot-related to happen). Each of these locations should either have one or more memorable characters, or an encounter that challenges the characters. There may or may not be a reward for dealing with whatever challenge might be there. A good adventure module will also have hooks for locations and/or people that are already central to the plot – this will give the product even more staying power.

Going the extra mile by adding details beyond what is necessary to the adventure itself, shows that you, the writer, have a longer-term vision for the product. Doing so also allows you to include ideas that don’t necessary fit the central storyline, but will still enhance the playing experience. Above all, you may get some new ideas about what to write in the future – which is never a bad thing.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

The quote above is the most popular translation of that famous line by the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu (604-531 BC), but it applies to many aspects of life – including writing.

About a month ago I made a pact with a fellow member of my writing group, to write 300 words per day (he committed to 350), no matter what. I can do it first thing in the morning, over lunch, or just before going to bed. But they get written, no matter what – despite the day job, family commitments, household work, etc. This is a great motivational tool, because I can easily write 300 words in under an hour, and most days I exceed that target. Either way I win.

The added benefit is being able to see the progress of my work. Day by day, I see my manuscript get longer and I get that much closer to having a finished first draft that I can refine, submit to my group for critiquing, refine some more, and submit. Assuming I meet a daily commitment of 300 words, I will be writing 2,100 words per week, or rougly 9,000 words per month. That’s two decent-sized short stories per month – or, at up to 108,000 words per year, a novel.

All doable, at only 300 words per day. It’s such a small step when you look at it, but over time I can travel far.

Writing it was the Easy Part…

The Tunnelers has been out for a few weeks, and it’s available on a number of websites (which I’ve included below). But as an author my job has just begun. Now, of course, I need to get the word out!

If my work was hardcover or paperback, I could do a lot of my promotional work by arranging book signings at local bookstores or other venues. Even if I didn’t make a lot of sales, the fact that I would be sitting at a table, surrounded by stacks of books, might attract people’s attention and the resulting conversations might generate a few indirect sales. But my book is an e-book, so there’s nothing tangible for potential customers to flip through.

Fortunately, the technology that let me send my manuscript to the publisher can also help me advertise it. There are quite a few bloggers who, if interested in an author’s work, will review it for free, and some of these sites have a considerable number of followers. Some reviewers will also post their reviews on Amazon or other sites, in addition to their own blog, which in turn will generate more visibility. Needless to say, I’ve approached a number of them already, and there is interest.

I’ve also searched local websites for community portals related to my genre (horror), and made contact with them. If things go well I’ll increase local awareness of my book, and make links to other writers in my community. Finally, I’ve contacted my university alumni magazine to post a notice about my book, and I’ve contacted the student newspaper – never underestimate the power of the alumni community.

Although these are only first steps, the feedback I’m getting from them is encouraging. Forward momentum, no matter how small, is always better than sitting around waiting for something to happen. And if nothing else, the connections I’m making are valuable in themselves.

Some places where you can get a copy of The Tunnelers:

Solstice Publishing

Amazon.com

Smashwords

Fictionwise

E-reader

Scribd

Bookstrand

Efiction Bookstore

Useful Links:

Simon Royle’s Indie Reviewers listing – a collection of sites that will review your work for free if they’re interested – a great first stop.

Show, Don’t Tell

A mentor of mine once told me that when writing a story, it’s essential to show, and not tell. This means presenting the information or action in a story such that the reader sees what you mean, rather than describing what happens in a detached manner. This brings the reader deeper into the story.

A straightforward concept, but sometimes easier said than done. While doing an edit of the first chapter of my fantasy novel, I noticed that I used a flashback to describe an event that, while minor at the time of drafting, has proved to be more important in terms of character development. I took the handful of sentences and expanded them into a full mini-scene, while at the same time using the opportunity to craft some fun dialogue. I’ll share it below:

“So you want out, after only one night?” Raimonds leaned back in his chair, studying Andrejs over steepled fingers.

Andrejs swallowed, but his throat remained dry. “I…I don’t think this kind of work is right for me.”

Raimonds smiled tightly. “You leave me in a bit of a tight spot, Andrejs. Daina spoke so highly of you, and I expected much. Keeping the neighbourhood safe is dangerous work, and I can use all the help I can get. You’re from the country; you ought to know all about community spirit. But now,” he paused with loud sigh, “I may have to move Daina back to lookout duty,” he turned to Daina, who was glaring at Andrejs in disgust, “I know how much you hated that job, especially since your little incident, but as you can see our friend Andrejs leaves me with little choice.”

He turned back to Andrejs and narrowed his eyes. “You know, boy, you’re quite lucky that I like Daina. If you had been recommended by anyone else, there’s a good chance your body would be floating in the river about now. But I trust her, and if she says someone is worthwhile then they must be good for something.

“So here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let you walk out of here with your life, your night’s wages, and the memory of the great opportunity you refused. Keep that in mind as you toil away for nothing, or more likely return to your hovel in despair.” Raimonds snickered loudly, and was joined by the other people in the room.

Andrejs wrestled with fear and anger. They’re making a big show of letting me live and they’re rubbing my face in it, he thought. “Keep your money,” he growled through gritted teeth, “I’ll make my own way!”

“Don’t think so, kid,” said Guntis, lounging by the fireplace. “I think you’ll come crawling back here in a week, begging Raimonds to take you back. I know your kind.”

“You don’t know anything about me or where I’m from. I’ll never walk or crawl back here. Never.”

Guntis smirked and folded his arms across his broad chest. “I’ve pounded people bigger than you into the dirt for much less, kid, but you’ve got guts to say that here. Either you’re real mad, real crazy, or brave. Whatever you are, you’re funny, so instead of beating you up I’ll play a game with you,” he pulled a shiny gold coin out of his pouch and flipped it into the air. His hand darted out and caught it, and he held it out for Andrejs to see. “I’ll bet you a gold lats – you know what gold is, don’t you? – that you’ll be back here in less than a month. I’ll even stake your wager, if you want.” He snickered and wiped his nose with the back of a meaty hand.

Andrejs stared at the gold coin. He’d never seen a lats before – none of the regular folk in Paraskas had that kind of money, or if they did they were really quiet about it. He should walk away, forget this day ever happened, and start over tomorrow. He turned towards the door to leave, but was startled by a chorus of loud giggling. Raimonds was laughing, as was Guntis and a handful of other men. Andrejs hurried towards the door, and Guntis called out to him. “Afraid? Go back home – maybe your father can teach you how to be a real man.”

Andrejs bristled at the mention of his father and glared at Guntis through narrowed eyes. “You take that back.”

“Make me.”

“Alright. I accept your wager. I won’t come back, and I won’t need anyone’s help. Come see me in a month, and then I’ll take that gold from you!” Andrejs held out his hand, which Guntis sauntered over and shook. His grip was like iron.

“It’s a deal. See you in a month. You’d better be living well.”

So, after an hour’s work, I’ve not only provided a clear reason for Andrejs’ anxiety in chapter 2; I’ve also deepened the antagonism between Andrejs and Raimonds and his cronies, and given Andrejs a character flaw (overcompensation for the loss of his father, which forced him to be a surrogate father to his siblings at a relatively young age). This will clarify some aspects of the conflicts in future chapters, as well.

In just 30 minutes…

Real life has been occupying a lot of my time lately, which means that my writing has been scaled back for the past couple of weeks. Even so, I’ve been making a point of doing some writing regularly to keep my upward momentum (or at least, to keep it from going further downwards).

This is where my writing group has been really helpful. Attending the meetings forces me to force myself to have something ready to submit for comment at each meeting (even if it’s just a story outline). That guarantees a minimum level of output, which can always increase again. The more useful thing (for me) right now are the 30-minute “write-offs” that I’ve been invited to. A number of group members work near me during the day, and we’ve found it convenient to meet in a food court for a quick lunch, and then spend 30 minutes working intensely.

One would think that working would be impossible, with all the distractions caused by other people’s conversations, ringing cellphones, and the smells of food. However, sitting at a table with like-minded people, each of whom is busy working on a project (whether it is editing a work, doing an outline, developing characters, or actually writing) can do wonders to focus the mind. Although I know each of us is busy, the stolen glances I noticed the last few times reveal the underlying competitive aspect: Which one of us will get the most work done? I find this low-level rivalry actually spurs me on. At our last noon hour write-off, I managed to draft a two-page outline for a short story that included background, a plot synopsis, details on three characters, and a full three-part story arc. No doubt it will require refinement, but the fact that I wrote all this in 30 minutes, in a noisy food court, says something to me.

1. Even when I think the energy and inspiration tanks are running low, I can produce when I set my mind to it.

2. A supportive environment, filled with like-minded individuals, can do wonders.

Switching Gears

Progress on the novel continues, but I’m in a bit of a slow patch at the moment. To keep myself occupied, I’m returning to some short stories I wrote some time ago, and revising them for submission to some new publishers I’ve heard about. As a matter of practice, I try to have at least two pieces of work under consideration somewhere at any given time. This keeps me motivated because I’m always in a bit of a state of anticipation, but it also gives me a sense of efficacy because my work isn’t collecting metaphorical dust on my memory stick.

I like to think that this sort of gear-switching helps all of my work, because I’m always thinking about something I’ve written, and ideas I have for one piece can always be used for something else if they don’t quite fit. A rising tide lifts all boats, sort of thing.

I’m still moving forward, just at a different pace.

On Being Flexible (and doing a bit of market research)

Although it would be wonderful to be able to write a story, submit the first draft, and have it accepted for publication right away, this isn’t likely. The odds of lightning striking the same place twice would be more favourable.

What this means, is that a writer should be persistent, but also flexible. If a piece gets rejected (for whatever reason) by several publications in the same genre, it might be a good idea to recast the story in a different one if possible. For example, let’s suppose you have written a science fiction action story with a Dashing Hero, a Mission of Utmost Importance, a Despicable Hero, and a Really Cool Spaceship. The idea is sound, the story flows well, the dialogue is well crafted, and there is an appropriate balance of action, tension, and a bit of humour. Unfortunately, despite being well written no publisher will take it. Does that mean you should abandon it? No!

The elements of the very rough plot outline provided above could easily be recast as a western (make the spaceship a trusty steed), a fantasy story, a high seas adventure (the ship is now a sailing vessel), or an espionage thriller (you might even be able to keep the spaceship). Naturally, you should pick a new genre that interests you, but you should also do a bit of market research to help you make your decision. Is the new genre saturated right now? Are there any red-hot new series out there that might overshadow your work? A diligent search, including visiting publishers’ websites, can help answer these questions, and others you might have. If all else fails, you can always contact the company or send a query letter, to gauge their interest.

All this to say, if your manuscript seems to be going nowhere, don’t be so quick to throw it away. All it might need is a little recasting.

The Long Haul, or Why Plot Outlines are a Very Good Idea

When I first decided to write a book, I knew I was in for a challenge. Up until that point I had only written short stories, averaging 2,500 to 5,000 words each. These were challenging, but rewarding, projects that could be sustained by my usual writing schedule. There were slow patches, but short stories form quickly, and I was guaranteed to have a recognisable product before long to raise my spirits. Organisation wasn’t much of an issue, either. I had a story idea, a conflict that had to be resolved within 5,000 words, and a couple of characters with enough traits to give them some depth. As an author, I don’t have the scope to do much more than that, once setting description, laying out the challenge to be overcome, the climax, and dialogue are handled.

Novels are a different matter entirely. With so much more room to fill (even a 100- to 120-page children’s novel, like the one I’m writing, will clock in at around 30,000-40,000 words), the author has to sustain reader interest. This means exploring plots and characters in more depth, venturing into the history of the setting if it serves the plot, and broadening the scope of the novel beyond the core plot enough to make the whole thing less linear. Novels that truly stand out, in my view, are those that can digress a bit from time to time to explore secondary characters and subplots. It sustains my interest, and if it’s done well I may want to read it again. All this can be very overwhelming.

While a little digression adds depth, too much results in the storyline going off on tangents, which only serve to frustrate the reader (“Enough about Sally’s sick son; get back to the bloody battle!”). I won’t mention any names, but many promising books and series start off on a strong note, but get so mired in detail and subplots over time that even the most devoted fan may be tempted to give up. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to develop a plot outline and stick to it.

This is exactly what I’ve done, and after six months and nearly 20,000 words it seems to be working. I sketched out ten chapters for my book, inserted a major conflict near the end and three others before that to build tension. Since I have two key characters, I determined beforehand which chapters would be told from which character’s perspective. Using that outline, I realised immediately that I had to build up tension between certain secondary characters to give the plot more depth.

Even with this outline, I still ended up making minor digressions to enrich the plot, such as adding a scene with a village (and tertiary characters) to give the setting more cultural depth, and to add tension to one of the planned conflicts. But, and this is important, I returned to the main theme once it was done. So, while the final product will no doubt be different from how I originally envisioned it, I should still make it to the finish line, on time.

Plot outlines: A good idea that saved my sanity and kept me on track.