Category Archives: Process

Related to the writing process, including but not limited to organization, technique, pre- and post-work operations, etc.

The Need For Speed

So, I write a lot. You may have noticed this from me everywhere.

I also write fast, or at least I do when circumstances cooperate and I can sit down and bash out some words. This contributes to the impression that I write a lot; on a bad day I can usually grind out 500 words or so, and on a good day I can get up to 8-10k, sometimes 14k on different projects? I think that’s my upper limit. I did this by breaking myself, in the way that you can shape bones and bodies when they’re young and malleable by breaking them. I dont’ recommend it, and I’ve gotten into it in more depth elsewhere on my blog.

One of the ways I do write fast though, that I do advocate, is because I have learned to both shut up my inner editor and to use her to my advantage. I recommend starting with gagging your inner editor, sitting them in a corner, and telling them to think about their many and varied sins and how you’re not going to have anything for them to complain about if you don’t finish this first draft. Once you and your inner editor have gotten into that routine (and if you have you might know what I’m talking about here) you can begin Phase 2 of becoming Even More Awesome.

Look, if you ground out a first draft you are an Awesome Writer by my way of thinking. Drafts are hard. So we’ll work on being Even More Awesome.

My mind is, eh, I don’t want to say a finely tuned instrument but more like it’s a government institution. Which is to say that it has inertia on its side, it works sluggishly at times and way too fast at others, and both of these times are the least convenient. (I refer you to the perpetual phenomenon of Ideas In The Shower.) It has many rooms and offices that each perform functions, another thing I’ve gone into more detail elsewhere about which rooms perform what functions. Today we’re going to be looking at the Inner Editor’s office. It’s pretty empty most of the time, after all she’s not very useful in getting the draft out, but some things do live there with reasonable permanence.

The first thing that comes to mind as I write this is also the latest thing: the shelf of weasels. Occasionally these weasels will be retired and new weasels will show up. Not the typical kind of brainweasels, these are what Editrix calls the “weasel words,” the ones that I’ve started using as conversational filler like ‘almost’ and ‘at least’ and so on. And in some places they’re justified, but most of the time they dilute the writing and wear down the impact, so I leave the weasel cages on a shelf to remind me to cut that out. Every paragraph or page or so I go back and look; did I use them? Could I take them out? No? Good. Stay in your cages. The whole process takes about thirty seconds if I don’t have to make any changes, and then I’m on writing the next chunk of text. Sometimes I can catch them before they escape their cages and pee all over my text, which is ideal. Nobody likes watery weasel pee-soaked text.

Another thing I do is I have a few coats hanging on hooks. If I’m doing detective pulp I’ll have a detective coat on my hook and every few minutes I’ll do an internal check to make sure I’m in that mode. Clipped sentences, vivid description. Hints scattered here and there. How’s the tension? If I’m doing something more along a fantasy line I might keep a simple or a fancy cloak, and do an internal check there as I write. I want something that flows well and has a lyrical quality to it, without being so heavy in the phrase or word choice that I weigh myself down and can’t move the story at all.

I use visual metaphors to describe this because that’s how I think. What I’m doing is getting used to keeping these concepts in mind as I write, but separating it out from the part of my brain that worries over everything. I refer to it often as hanging things on hooks in my head, and it’s complicated at first but gets easier with practice. It helps to do a few test runs of writing shorter things at first, keeping one or two things in mind as you write and otherwise just going as fast as you reasonably can while maintaining coherence of story.

The other thing I do, unrelated to my Inner Editor’s Office, when I sit down to write is I have an idea of what the scene is. I’m afraid this may just take practice, or if there’s a method to learning how to do it I haven’t picked it out of my head yet. I’ll sit down to write a scene and I’ll know, for example, that this is the scene in which a father tells his daughter his life story. I’ll know it starts with a meal, and in the kitchen, and that the immediate family will be there. I’ll pick a point before the action starts and I won’t stop until I’ve completed the scene goal and gotten everyone to where they need to be, or until it’s become obvious that I’ve run so completely off the rails that I need to stop and go back and start again, or reassess what I need out of this scene.

As with all useful skills, it takes practice to do this. It takes a lot of practice to write well, fast, to get things up to 50% right on the first try. Which honestly is about as high as I’d try to get on the first try, so tell your inner editor to can it. But it’s a skill worth developing if you’re one of those people who has a lot of stories you want to tell and a limited amount of time in which to write.

I know this torment. Trust me. I have a to-write list a mile long. Speed writing is the only way I get things done without becoming an eternal scream of frustration.

If you don’t have a lot of stories to tell or you have as much time as you feel you want or need to write, don’t worry about practicing this! But for those of you who are like me, who have so many stories in your head and are typing at the speed of light to get this out before you have to go someplace or do something or wrangle a child or a pet, I hope these tricks work for you.

Line by Line

Oh good gravy I haven’t updated this thing in over a year. Hi! How’s it going. I bet y’all missed getting email notifications from me about rambling blog posts, didn’t you. For the record, I think in the future I’m going to try to do a less rambly more long-form version of the twitter screeds I’ve been writing, which may at least keep me writing regular blog posts since I abandoned this blog thinking I have nothing to talk about.

(This was a blatant falsehood on someone’s part. Probably my brain lying to me again.)

So. Someone asked me if I could describe how I do line edits, and it looks like I’ve done a post on selecting an editor or when to know an editor is right for you, and a post (mostly) about the emotional weight and journey of editing, but not how I do line edits. So here is a very rough nuts, bolts, and widgets post about what happens after I finish a first draft.

Step 1: Fall over. Don’t write. Watch TV. Paint minis. Sew something. Knit or cross-stitch. The time immediately after having finished something is a time of putting that part of the brain on standby to recharge. If it’s a short story typically this means an hour or so of television, a book, doing something else for the rest of the day. If it’s a novel I do something else for the rest of the day and work on something else for the next six weeks or so. I try not to pick up a novel for at least six weeks after the first draft. It helps you relax, recharge, get some distance, let those neurons have a break from firing off ideas all the time.

Step 2: Fortify before reading. I get comfortable, make sure I haven’t skipped any meals recently and have had food at all the right times, make sure I have water. I want to eliminate all possible outside sources of malcontent so I don’t mistake being dehydrated for the headache that comes from incoherent writing. And I try not to eat a lot of sugar or otherwise get worked up in ways unhealthy for me. That’s not good either.

Step 3: Re-read. Sometimes I don’t re-read the whole thing, sometimes I skim parts (and note what I’ve skimmed and why, because if I’m bored a reader will be too, conversely if I’m skimming because I’ve already re-read that part umpteen million times that may be a good thing) but I re-read. And my best Editrix reads over too, not always simultaneous, and gives me a pile of notes either in email or at the beginning of the document for me to go over. So part of this re-read is reading her notes and jotting down how to implement her ideas or if I have other ideas how to fix it.

Step 4: Consult. The first rewrite isn’t always a complete tear-down (sometimes it is but thankfully these days if that happens it’s only because the book is ten years old) so generally what I’m doing here is talking with the Editrix and saying okay, so how much parrot do I need to put in, I can include the parrot here, here, and here. Or, hey this is suddenly very topical, I could redo the ending and adjust it so that there’s this private discussion instead of a public shaming. Or what have you. Most of the time I’m consulting on the major edits so I can work them in as I rewrite on the minor ones.

Step 5: Line edits. Now I’m finally going through the novel line by line, paragraph by paragraph, and fixing small things like phrasing, typos, punctuation, run-on sentences, unclear sentences, unclear antecedents, etc etc. Passive voice to active, or more rarely but it still happens, active voice to passive. Editrix keeps a list of words or phrases I overuse to beat me with periodically, so I get to rephrase to take those out too. While I’m doing line edits I also add in larger chunks of text, or sometimes take it out, to deal with those major or as we call them macro edits. Any text that are a sentence or longer get added in in a different color so Editrix can see what’s changed and decide if that’s better or if I should go back to what I just took out. Deletes are marked with a strikeout before they’re fully deleted.

Step 6: Repeat the last two steps basically. Consult, see if there are any more macro edits to be done, if the story’s in good shape for the overall construction of it, if all characters and action are properly paced. If all Chekhov’s guns have gone off. (And if you don’t know what that is Google or I will be happy to explain.) If there’s more macro edits, we do another round of that and then another round of line edits because there are inevitably large chunks of text that need line edits.

Step 7: Editrix and I both do one last read-over once it’s done for small line edits, the last fiddly bits, and take out all strikeouts and fill in all bracket notes. Simultaneous to this or just prior there will be a re-read for timeline check, and depending on what’s happening in the novel there might also be a closer read of some scenes for choreography and blocking. Just to make sure one character isn’t moving an extra hand they don’t have. This is actually the last step before publication, so when I talk about clearing line edits, this is usually what I mean. Last lingering strikeouts, the final sticky typos that were somehow missed all previous versions, bracket notes [bracket notes example here] that I haven’t fixed or cleared because I have no idea what to do with them. Usually these are names of people or places, I hate that part.

Step 8: … party? The novel’s pretty much done now, so it’s time to party before I realize I have to write promo copy in five different lengths, find cover art, so on and so forth. Groan. The perils of self-publishing.

The Great Grumpy Mire

So, that story I just finished is definitely one of the reasons why writers sometimes dole out the little gem that, if you can do anything else, do that instead.

I’d love to blame the endless string of shit that’s been piled down through January and into February (long, tiring story) and that I only managed to climb out of in March, but in reality it’s also just the writing process. The sad reality that sometimes, the inspiration doesn’t last, what you’ve written down isn’t enough to keep you energized through the whole thing, and all you’re left with is the notes and a hope that when you’ve put it all together and written it out, you’ll have something people want to read. Right now that’s a fainter hope than I’d like to run with. Which means it’s going to be a long, painful editing process. And no one likes that either.

By contrast there’s two other things I’m working on that are flying out of my fingertips, and not only are they easy, I’d judge that they’re actually pretty good. I’ve got the rhythm of it, I’m managing to get words on paper at a pretty good clip. Well, on screen. And I’m stringing words together in a way that’s not repetitive, that’s true to the setting and the characters, and that seems at least to be engaging enough to keep going. It’s a good sign when you’re interested enough in your own book to keep reading it and writing!

This doesn’t, by the way, have anything to do with fleshing out the world or the characters. In fact out of the three stories, the one I’ve been struggling with is at least as detailed if not more so than one of the two that’s chugging right along. If I knew what this endless mental morass and slog did have to do with, well, for one thing I wouldn’t be slogging through any of my stories anymore. I don’t think anyone does know. It’s just One Of Those Things.

This is the part where discipline comes in. This is why, whenever anyone asks for advice on how to write or finish a thing, my first advice is always, get your ass in that chair and write yourself into a routine. The only way to know, ultimately, if you’ve got a winner or a jumbled mess in your hands is to finish it, go back, look at it, and try and bash it into some sort of shape. Sometimes you do that and look back and it isn’t worth the struggle. Believe me, there are works I’ve drafted that I wish I’d abandoned halfway through. Sometimes, I had this happen to me recently, sometimes you get half or three quarters of the way through and it’s been a hell of a slog through the mud and the suck, and all you want to do is give up. And then everything falls into place, not just because you’re close to the end but because suddenly you know exactly why she did that, you know why he’s being an asshole, you know everything and you can’t get it onto the page fast enough. Sure, you have to rewrite the first 30-50 thousand words, but who cares? You’re on fire! Sometimes that moment happens in rewrites. Or on the third draft (had that happen recently, too), and sometimes it never happens, you finish the damn thing, put it out there, and fifty people swarm all over it claiming it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. That’s another thing you should do, if you have something but you’re not sure about it, show it to a few other people and see how they feel. I can’t tell you how many authors go “Huh, they picked the one I was least excited about.”

People, man. You can’t predict what they’ll like, you just have to do the best you can, put it out there, and hope they enjoy it.

But this is why I stress discipline as a part of writing for serious hobbyists, career writers, what have you. This is why people say, god, why would you want to be a writer. Do something else. You don’t even have the benefit of tangible improvement the way you do if you’re a craftsperson or an animal trainer or an underwater basketweaver. You can’t look at a line of baskets and say, yeah, the first few sucked, but that last one, man, look at that work of art! After a while you get the mechanical details of the craft down but that doesn’t insure you against screwing up epic-time in one of the big details down the line. Or just writing something that never, ever finds its audience.

The thing I do know, though, is that you will never find any of that out if you don’t at least get a few first drafts you, even if you hate them. Even if you look at the editing process and think “oh god I would rather do my taxes than deal with that” (go on guess what I did the morning I wrote the first draft of this). You don’t have to finish all of the drafts, that’s a pernicious lie that even I tell sometimes, you can’t edit what isn’t there but sometimes, yes, it is better just to put it down, say ‘screw you, story’, and walk the fuck away. And sometimes you have to push through it, and push through it, and keep pushing, and use that discipline to the fullest. And only you can make that judgment call.

Camp Nanowrimo 2015

I think at this point every writing blog does a Nanowrimo post sometime. This gives me a case of The Olds, because when I started Nanowrimo I was in college and it was maybe a few thousand people and we were all doing this crazy thing together, and apart from the online forums there was very little in the way of support. And now I think agencies and editors fear December with a particular kind of “Oh shit here come the masses of unedited manuscripts” trepidation. They make commercials with horror music or the Jaws theme out of this kind of stampede. Never, ever, ever submit your fresh out of the gate Nanowrimo manuscript. I know you know better. Don’t do it anyway.

Anyway. So, everyone has their own Nanowrimo advice or opinion post, and this is mine!

BACK UP YOUR WORK. Back it up back it up back it up. This should be at the top of every advice post on marathon writing I make. Back. It. Up. Otherwise you run the risk of being very sad someday.

Schedule Yourself – There’s two reasons for this. One is that if you clear out all foreseeable duties you might have to deal with in the next half hour and dedicate yourself to sitting and writing, you might actually have the time to do it. Not to mention the energy, if you schedule it right. This requires having a certain amount of predictability and awareness in your day-to-day, but if you can do it, it’s worth doing. That’s the obvious one. The less obvious part is that if you discipline yourself to sitting your ass down and putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper for X minutes or at Y time in the day, you’re more likely to be able to do so in the future. And you’re more likely to be able to, not just because you’ll get in the habit and go “Oh, it’s writing time now,” but because your brain works itself around to that routine, sitting and writing will become at least a little bit easier. Even if it’s just a couple hundred words. Or fifty words. The more you make writing a part of your daily routine, the easier it gets to push through and get something done even when what you’re working on seems stale and boring and bleugh and no one will ever want to read this why do I bother. Which brings me to my next point.

You Will Get Sick Of It – That’s just a fact of writing. You will come to hate what you’re working on at least a little bit. My Editrix calls it the boggy middle. Neil Gaiman famously wrote that he called his agent to complain that this was pointless and he was never going to finish and it was a bad idea, and that she told him “Oh, you’re at that stage, everyone does it.” It’s true. Everyone does. This is why it’s important to get to a point where you’re comfortable in your own head with writing absolute, utter crap. Because whether or not you are, there is a point where you’ll feel like it. And speaking of comfortable…

Writer Comfort Is a True Myth – First, the myth: If you have that one fountain pen, or that one program, or that new laptop, or that office desk, or the perfect notebook, or even just a quiet place to curl up, you are not necessarily going to write any better or any easier. If your laptop is old and buggy and the ‘f’ key is missing and you can only open two windows at a time, maybe, yes, you will write easier. If you’ve got two screaming kids under the age of ten and a sick spouse and somehow you manage to turn the whole mess over to your BFF so you can have half an hour to yourself, you will almost certainly write easier. But having the ideal environment is not required. It is no guarantee that you won’t sit there staring at a blank page swearing at yourself because you only have twelve minutes left and you have to get the hero out from under the rolling boulder. And that said, knowing how to optimize what you do have is also important, as well as knowing what you would love to have, what you would like, and what the minimum is you need to get into the headspace for writing. Just because you don’t need the thing to write doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the thing, if it’s within your means without sacrificing other important shit. Like, you know, food.

Bare Necessities – Speaking of food. Are you fed? If it’s been a little while, do you have a small food by your writing implements to snack on while you write? Are you hydrated? Did you sleep well? If not, do you have room for a quick power nap? (Power napping is a highly underrated skill.) Have you showered? Are you clean and feeling good and ready to go? If you have to set a  timer to make sure you get up every fifteen minutes and check if you need food or water, and do a few stretches and walk around some, set that timer. I do that quite a bit. Neglect not your physical form just because the biggest muscle a writer uses is the mind. It takes maybe forty five to an hour to shower, have a food, have a stretch, and sit down and take a couple to get your head in the game.

Head Games – And that is my last piece of advice for this post: since your mind is the biggest muscle you will use for writing (apart from those pesky fingers) you should exercise it. There are scads and gobs of affirmation exercises, guided meditation, I don’t favor any particular one and use a cobbled-together sort of meditation of my own design which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere in this blog. But exercising your brain is important, however you do it. So take some time and some trial and error, and figure out how you can best exercise your brain to make it an efficient writing muscle.

That’s my advice for marathon writing. Coincidentally, it’s also my advice for people who want to make a … what’s the word for a career that doesn’t imply a living wage? Profession? Lifelong habit? We’ll go with that, a lifelong habit of writing. Basically, if you’re writing for more than just this one story, this is my advice for how to go about working it into your life. Use it wisely and well, and discard it when it no longer serves you. Okay, that’s my final piece of advice. Always discard advice after you’ve considered it against your circumstances, if you’ve discovered it doesn’t serve you. There is no one true way to do writing, and anyone who tells you there is is selling something.

Education As Virus: A Few Thoughts

“Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.” — Terry Pratchet, Hogfather

So, I’ve rediscovered my love of painting miniatures.

(So that’s where you’ve been! I hear you cry. No, actually, this was only a couple weeks ago, I’ve been AWOL for a lot longer than that. Or maybe I don’t hear you cry, maybe that’s the sound of the crickets outside my window. Who knows.)

At any rate. I also managed to infect a couple of friends with a love of miniature painting, or infect one and reinfect another, maybe, and in the process managed to get myself appointed mini painting tutor. Because she kept fussing at problems and I kept going “Well, this is how I solved that…” and she kept calling me a genius and I kept telling her, no, I’ve just digested the brains of many geniuses in my wanderings, and at the end I decided I might as well just compile all my various learnings about mini painting into one giant document and paste it on the internet.

And then listing off all the equipment I use, from a quick glance around this corner of my craft room, took about two hours and encompassed several thousand words. Never mind the whole initial painting post, which doesn’t even get into various techniques and things. I didn’t realize I’d accumulated a novella’s worth of mini painting information given that I haven’t done it in a couple of years. I’m not even that good at it, I don’t think.

It’s not even that I blather on (although I do, just take a look around here) or even that I soak up information like a sponge (I do, oddly this doesn’t come in as handy as you’d think), it’s that I refuse to stop learning. Which is harder than you might think. In every discipline or craft or hobby or field of study there are always going to be people who say, you’re doing it wrong, which automatically raises hackles and causes one to instinctively shout back no, you. Which is all well and good except a) that’s no basis for communication and b) you might actually be doing it wrong. I’ve been doing feathering wrong for a few years, as it turns out! A different tutorial explained it to me in a way I understood much better. Turns out what I was doing all this time was layering, which is fine for some things but also doesn’t create the effect I was going for elsewhere. C’est la vie. Now I will practice proper feathering, and probably fuck it up several times before I do it well. Again.

To put it another way, there’s a lot of people out there who say you don’t need a degree in Creative Writing or English to be a professional writer. There’s a lot of people who say you do! I take strong issue with with those who say you need a degree in either and preferably both to be a writer; to me, writers write, if you are a noun you must verb the noun, or something that makes more grammatical sense than what I just said. You get the idea, because it makes instinctive sense, because you know what I’m talking about, because I’ve written a lot of stuff like this down. Writers write. But is there only One True Way to write? Or to Become A Writer, which is again in my opinion largely a self-defined process anyway, apart from the writing. Not hardly. There are as many ways as there are writers, probably ten times that many.

But, like mini painting, like everything else in life, there are techniques, and tricks, and other things to make your life easier. And these things you must learn, else you will be doomed to reinvent the wheel or the layering forevermore, and really, why bother? That’s time you could be spending writing your next novel or play or screenplay. Even if you just take some time out to look at a forum and the discussions it offer, or if you run into a problem and go through some of your favorite authors asking their advice and seeing if they answer, learning from someone else’s fuckups is starting a few steps ahead of where you were, which is a few steps you don’t have to take yourself.

I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about mini painting, or writing, or sewing, or any of the other crafts I’ve practiced. I’m also not saying that this is the be all and end all approach; as with all bits of advice, your mileage will vary. You may need to make all the mistakes to embed them properly in your thinkmeats, I am not you and therefore do not know your particular brain processes. But I will say that in my experience, and in what seems to be the experience of a number of other people I know, it’s just easier to learn from other people’s mistakes or bad habits. Or to find that approach and discard it as not for you, and then that’s one thing you don’t have to try. Either way.

It is a very large world out there full of people who wish to dispense advice, including myself. Go forth, my children, and partake of the wisdom of the world’s people. Become infected. Pass it on.

The Sound of Music

A lot of us write to music. If you doubt that, just go to the Nanowrimo forums and see how long the thread is for “what’s the soundtrack to your novel” or however that question is phrased this year. It’s long. Hundreds of people excited to share the soundtrack (or sometimes soundtracks, plural) to their novel with like-minded people. Professional authors publish the soundtracks by which they write their novels these days: the wonders of modern technology! Human beings are 80% visual*, but in the absence of direct and external visual stimuli, sometimes we need to kick in some audio in that other 20%. Thus, the soundtrack. Or fanmix, or playlist, or what have you. Even professional works have fanmixes, playlists. For example, the Nutcracker suite composed by Tchaikovsky came almost a century after the Nutcracker story was first penned by ETA Hoffman, was inspired by and based around that story.

Some writers can’t write to anything that has lyrics. Some have to have lyrics to set the mood of the piece or the tone of the character. Some writers prefer composers and classical music, some prefer anything grand and instrumental, some just put on a radio and go. As with everything else about writing, it’s highly individual. I used to be one of those who couldn’t write to lyrics. Truth be told, a lot of the time I still can’t. I get distracted singing along, or trying to listen harder, or both. That said, almost all of my soundtracks for both Black Ice and Sandborn came from fragments of tunes I’d hear in television shows and then, liking the music, I’d go seek out the song title, album, and band. I highly recommend doing that, by the way. Not just the radio, any time you hear a piece of music you like the sound of, write down any details that catch your ear that you can think of. Then see if you can find out what it is on the internet. We’ve got a marvelous tool at our fingertips, might as well make use of it.

Black Ice is urban fantasy, our modern world smashed together in an industrial strength blender with fantasy elements. There are no vampires, nor yet werewolves, but there is magic and there are (sort of) faeries, and there are creatures for which humans don’t have names yet. The brownies now run a protection racket, and there are outlaws who, rumor says, have made bargains with demons for supernatural powers. So for this soundtrack I did want lyrics, everything with lyrics, and a wistful damnation theme, how the world has turned and decayed, and how the characters within have reacted to it.

  1. If I Had A Heart – Fever Ray
  2. No Milk Today – Joshua James & The Forest Rangers cover
  3. Beat The Devil’s Tattoo – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
  4. Seven Stories Underground – The Gutter Twins
  5. Seven Devils – Florence + The Machine
  6. The Death & Resurrection Show – Killing Joke
  7. Don’t Fear The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
  8. Digging Deep – Jakalope
  9. Into the Dark – Melissa Ethridge
  10. You Are – Hungry Lucy
  11. Cry Little Sister – Carfax Abbey cover
  12. Golgotha Tenement Blues – Machines of Loving Grace

Sandborn is different. It’s not a true fantasy world in the sense that technology is stuck somewhere between Dungeons and Dragons and Middle Earth, but the world has definitely moved on. Call it, just prior to the industrial revolution. There is magic in the world, but it’s shrouded in tawdry disguises or hidden, not because of persecution but because no one believes it anymore even when it’s staring them in the face. Hope is for children, and everyone seems to be trying to scratch out another day and postpone the increasingly inevitable withering of humanity. For this I kept some songs with lyrics, but also blended it with movie and television scores. Different characters have their own selections within the playlist, too, even though at some point I’m sure I’ll end up with entire playlists for individual characters.

  1. Lucky to have Jonesy – Sofie’s Theme – Jeff Beal
  2. Mark Antony and Atia – Jeff Beal
  3. Angry Johnny – Poe
  4. The Carnivale Convoy – Jeff Beal
  5. Lucrezia Donati – Bear McCreary
  6. Pageant – Cirque Du Soleil
  7. Iguazu – Gustavo Santaolalla
  8. Balloon Girl – Hungry Lucy
  9. Dry and Dusty – Fever Ray
  10. Birth of a Legend – Graeme Revell

Selecting An Editor

Editors are necessary. That’s just a fact. An outside perspective will help your writing, albeit not just any outside perspective. And editing is a sad, painful necessity. Nothing comes out right the first time, no matter how much you wish you were done when you type those happy six letters “The end.” Believe me, I know.

The first thing I’m going to tell you, of course, falls under the heading of do as I say not as I do. Don’t tap your friends. Unless you’re very sure of both your ability to handle any criticism they might give and how they would give it (how is important!), as well as their ability to trust your reception of their suggestions, just don’t go there. Friendships are not always as sturdy as they seem, and editing is a hard test, and a good breeding ground for resentment with as many emotional and esteem issues as crop up for both writer and editor. So don’t talk to your friends about reading over your work for deep edits. There are two exceptions I’d make here: first of all, if you’re used to writing fan-fiction and you use your friends regularly as (what the fan-fiction world calls:) beta-readers, discuss it with your friends and give it a shot if they’re agreeable. There’s some difference in writing and editing fan-fiction as opposed to original, but not so much that it wouldn’t be worth it to try. The second exception is if you’re asking your friends to be first readers more than editors, to read your work and see if it’s overall a thing they would like to read, see more of, etc. Their general feelings rather than the detailed edits. It’s always good to have a few first readers. Just make sure your friends do read the type of thing you’re writing! (Unless it’s so idiosyncratic as not to have a type.)

My editor is also my best brain twin because of a long series of convoluted circumstances. Mostly, I think, because we started out reading and critiquing each other’s work, and realized eventually that I liked writing fiction more than she did, and she was better at editing than I was. We’re freaks. Don’t  go by us as an example.

The second (and third, and fourth) thing(s) I’m going to tell you are crucial: Make sure you are comfortable talking to your editor. Make sure you feel comfortable defending or explaining, and mostly explaining, your narrative decisions, your characters, your work as a whole or in any given part.  Your job as an author isn’t just to write the work and present it, but also to answer any questions your editor may have, and a good editor will inevitably have at least a few questions. You need to make sure that you’re willing to be there to answer questions, and you need to make sure that they know that, too. Which leads into the next point.

Make sure they are comfortable talking to you. A lot of people are afraid to give criticism because they’re afraid of how it will be received. Don’t be that person. You are asking your editor to look at your work and judge it on the strengths you have given it, acknowledge that. Either you trust that they’re able to put aside bias and that they have the skill to make good calls, or you don’t. If you don’t, don’t ask them! If you do, let them know that you’re comfortable either with whatever criticism they’re going to dole out, or that you’re comfortable with only a certain level of criticism. They then have a choice between agreeing to cover only what you’re comfortable with, or saying that they’re not comfortable with those restrictions and walking away. As is their right. It’s your right to pick your editor, no one should wade in and start marking up your work without invitation, but it’s also your obligation to remember that you’re asking for a service, and to treat the person giving that service with respect and courtesy.

And in the beginning there’s going to be a lot of “you want to do this this and this” “No, but I meant to do this this and that.” That’s fine. That’s why the next step is to make sure that you two are good communicators with each other. Ask questions! Answer questions! Maybe you’re not comfortable having your narrative decisions questioned but this one person is able to gently walk you through the good and bad points of what you’ve written without making you feel like you should give up on everything, so you’ll accept it from them whereas you wouldn’t from anyone else. Maybe you’ve been burned in the past by people whose favorite comment is “No! This is wrong! Redo it!” with no indications whatsoever what the hell they’re talking about. These are things any prospective editor should know about you. Likewise, maybe you write primarily romance and erotica, and the editor you really like isn’t comfortable reading that. Maybe the editor you think would be great for you isn’t comfortable reading for English grammar. Maybe they’re not confident in their ability to find holes in your timeline, and that’s something you wanted to work on. These are things you should know about your editor. Talk with them! Share a lunch or a chat or a movie, or a chat about a movie, or a movie about lunch, or something. Get to know how you two will interact, if you run into a lot of communication roadblocks or if you understand each other pretty well, because smooth communication is a wonderful, irreplaceable aid to the editing process.

Aside from three paragraphs of communication is good, people, make sure you are comfortable that they know what they’re talking about. You can ask for their bona fides, you can ask for their credentials or ask them to read over a short work (make sure it doesn’t take up too much of their time!) as a trial run. And remember to be humble. You’re admitting that you need an editor, and that’s a big step, but you also need to know and be willing to show where your weaknesses are. I’m relatively good at timelines but I’m horrible at remembering to put in physical descriptions. I’m also very used to pulp but when I switch styles my run-on sentences get atrocious. It generally helps an editor to have some idea of what they’re dealing with, or at least, knowing what you think they’ll be dealing with, then they can have some idea of whether or not their capabilities match up. This goes double if you’re entering into a formal, paying contract (which you most likely will be), anyone who you decide to pay money for a service, always always always check their credentials. Check their reviews, talk to people for testimonials. Check Editors and Predators or other, similar sites. Make sure you’ll be comfortable with the quality of their work or the time/money you’ll be losing if you aren’t, in the end. But be humble. Don’t pull that diva crap about how an author of your caliber requires the very best editor; at that point you’re not shopping for an editor, you’re shopping for validation. What you’re looking for is a qualified person who can find your mistakes and help you fix them. That’s it.

If you’re not paying them, if you’re shopping around in your writers’ groups, among your friends even against recommendation that you not, make sure their time limitations line up with your requirements. It is Not Nice to impose upon someone for a favor, and it is really not nice to do so when you’re not compensating them for their time and effort in any way. I freely admit to having guilt weasels every time I go into a spate of writing short stories, and (less weaselly) I try not to fling them all at her for immediate editing, because she has a life and obligations, too. Whether or not you’re paying your editor, keep in mind that they do have limitations and other pulls on their time. If you’re paying your editor, ask what their expected schedule is so you know when to nudge them about the work you’re paying for. If you’re not paying your editor, have a dialogue about time and schedules and how fast they work, how much work they’re expecting to be able to do, etc. In both cases, again, communication is key to figuring out timeframes, how much asking is over the line into nagging, etc.

Once you develop a good working relationship with someone, having an editor will improve your work by leaps and bounds. Once you get used to working with them, having an editor takes some to a lot of the burden off of you, because you’re no longer having to switch between hats. Or brains. One of the hardest things for me to learn, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, is to step the fuck back and let the Editrix do her work. It took us years and years and a lot of talking things out to get this way. But it’s a good place to be, and I strongly recommend that you find an editor or two you can work with easily and well. A good editor is definitely worth her weight in gold. Or, as I pay my Editrix, chocolate.

A Draft In The Rough

I’m doing Camp Nanowrimo this year and as always, it’s a struggle. The first two days are easy and the rest of the time it’s a slog. And it’s for the same reason that it likely becomes a slog for a lot of other people: It’s bad. It’s not what I intended. In this case it really isn’t, my story ran off the rails and off the outline within three scenes, which is sooner than it usually does when I know it this well! The characters just ran off and did something else. Which makes sense in the context of the characters I’ve built and what they would do, and maybe my initial guess of what they would do in the outline was wrong, but it’s still aggravating. I’m almost 15,000 words into a novel, 20% done, and it’s all wrong.

Well, and that’s fine. It’s okay to be wrong, it’s a rough draft.

I spent a long time not editing or looking back over my stories both because I was arrogant enough to think of most of them that they were good enough as they were (and they were decent) and because I had no intention of either finishing or posting them (and I haven’t) and also because I was afraid. I don’t like editing. I don’t like receiving edits back and learning that someone outside my own head thinks that passage I struggled and fussed over isn’t as good as I think it is. Worse, I don’t like getting edits back and learning that someone thinks that passage I struggled and fussed over is exactly as bad as I think it is, because a lot of times I do think my writing is pretty bad. Trite or cliche, I can structure a sentence properly and even find an unusual descriptor or two, but that’s about it for the skills I am consistently confident in. (Also, I sell myself poorly. You may be noticing.) Anyway, as a result, I hate edits. I hate editing, I hate revising, and I hate writing second drafts. It’s possible I hate writing first drafts even more, but I suspect I hate it differently instead.

You know what I hate even more than first drafts, edits, or second drafts? Not writing. I hate who I am when I don’t write, and so I write. And I like writing to a challenge, when I wrote more fan fiction than original fiction I would take the most improbable challenges just to see if I could come up with a plausible story that fit together that I could write out for it. Nowadays the challenges are writing to the requirements of a magazine submission call, or challenging myself to submit a novel to a board of editors of major publishing companies, or self-publishing an anthology. They’re interesting challenges, I’ll give it that. And they’re fun, and I enjoy them, and I work them stage by stage and try not to think too many stages ahead because Carnegie Hall is a really scary place. (This is an old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice practice practice.) One of those stages, however, is the rough draft, no matter how much I hate it. And I’ve danced on that stage often enough that I’ve pretty well gotten resigned to its existence.

And I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve come to learn that just because my rough drafts are rough doesn’t mean they’re not worth writing or worth doing, and it doesn’t mean that they’re bad, or I or anyone is bad for seeing things and making corrections. I’ve come to accept that I’m going to make mistakes and write bad passages and make more mistakes and have continuity errors and misjudge characters and make even more mistakes. Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. That’s why they’re rough drafts. First drafts. First implying in a series of several, and there will be second drafts, if you can manage it. And even third drafts. I have a novel that’s about to hit its third draft in another few months, its third complete draft because I realized some crucial things at the last minute and now it needs complete rewriting. This happens.

Your first and roughest draft need not be your only one. It’s a rough draft, it’s a place to start. The very beginning of a work of writing is in your head, but then you have to get it out of your head and onto paper or computer file. And you have to get it all out, beginning to end, before you can polish it up. It won’t be exactly as you see it in your head. It definitely won’t be as good, I can almost guarantee that. In twenty plus odd years of writing, I have maybe managed one draft that was 95% good with a few minor edits and one substantial one towards the end that required about thirty minutes of writing a patch job. And that piece is now sitting in the queue waiting to be published in the Black Ice anthology. And that’s after twenty plus odd years of writing experience. One piece that came close to being perfect the first time around. I think that was luck more than anything. Rough drafts by their very nature are rough, they are unpolished and they contain mistakes and edges that need smoothed. They need to be fixed. But you can’t have something that needs to be fixed if nothing is there in the first place.

I keep telling myself this. Most of the time it works, some of the time I need to power on by sheer stubbornness. I tell myself, you can’t edit something and make it better if there’s nothing there to edit in the first place. Some days, the inspiration and energy of the piece, my enthusiasm for it is enough to keep me going. And some days I have to remind myself that writing is just putting one word after the other, that I have all those words in my head and I just have to keep putting them down one after the other. And eventually, perhaps, I’ll get to Carnegie Hall.

Meet and Greet Your Characters

I was working on Black Ice’s sequel, White Lightning the other night, for Camp Nanowrimo. I’ve actually gotten a lot of mileage out of Nanowrimo; some day I’ll work up a few entries on that subject. This year Camp Nano offers self-imposed word limits rather than the traditional 50,000 minimum, so I picked a word count that I thought would give me a completed White Lightning, 75,000. I’m already far behind, due to a few Bad Brain Days on which I wrote nothing at all. Oops. Crap.

(Bad Brain Days happen. That’s a whole other post, too.)

The other night, though, I was working on making up for it, and once I got past this one hurdle it went pretty smoothly, I got about 2500 words cranked out in an hour, hour and a half. The first hurdle took a good hour and change, though, because this was prep-work I hadn’t yet done, and I should have. Editrix pointed it out as I was struggling with it, at which point I reached into my backbrain and, you know what? I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you work at all like I do, and that’s something you’ll either have learned or have to learn about writing advice: whatever works for you, works for you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because this system is endorsed by this bestselling author or that one is wildly popular, that means they’re good and you should use them. If you find yourself struggling every time you pick up a tool, put it down and for the love of Stephen King, leave it there. Whatever works for you is what works. And this is how I work, and if you work like I do, you do a lot of prep work before you set pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Some of it is textual. Some of it is psychological. For example, anything longer than about 500 words needs an outline, for me. Even if it’s just a couple slashes and a couple lines worth of “this scene is this, that scene is that, that scene is that other thing.” That way I know where I’ve started and I know where I’m going. Another thing I do, that I only write down if it involves specific details I don’t want to trust to my memory (and that always varies), is meet my characters.

I could describe to you what my protagonists for Black Ice do in a typical day, what they might have had for dinner last night, how they talk, how they walk, and where they go to curl up and hide without consulting my notes. I could probably, if put to it, improvise a short sketch playing them as an actor plays a part, with the only limitation being that I have shit for improv skills and no experience. I know my characters, I know how they breathe, if they breathe, how they think. I know them intimately, reflexively; if I have to spend any length of time putting a character’s voice to paper, I know them. I have to, to get their voice right.

So when I was sitting there struggling with a chapter from a certain character’s point of view, up pops my Editrix in a chat window and says “Okay, stop, take some time, I don’t think you know who she is.”

… of course not, Kitty, you moron. That’s why you’re struggling. Editrix knows me well.

I like character-driven fiction, stories with brilliant and vivid characters whose decisions and reactions drive the plot more than external forces not covered in the story. I mean, I read a good pulp or cozy mystery now and again, and sometimes I’m in the mood for scenery or description porn (Tolkien, I’m looking at you) but most of the time for me, it’s the characters. Therefore I tend to write character driven-fiction, too. It’s not so much that you should write what you know and like to read as that these are the stories I find interesting and therefore engaging and productive to tell. Usually that’s either the first or second thing that comes to mind, the character. I’ve had characters flop themselves down in chairs in my mental workspace and tell me they like it here, they’re going to stay a while. Other times I get an idea or a scene, something that seems at the time like a brilliant story piece, and then I start asking the questions like, who would do this? What would this person be like?

Sometimes getting to know the characters comes before the outline, sometimes after. If it happens after, inevitably the difference between outline and first draft will be greater than the other way around. That’s just the way it works for me; if I have the solid pattern of my characters in my head when I’m outlining, I have a much better idea of what they’ll do and where they’ll go than if I don’t, and I’m just plugging in events where I think they fit.

The other night it was somewhere in between. I knew a bit of this character’s history, I knew her function within the group dynamics of the story, but I didn’t know her. Not well enough to know what she did the second she got home, or what music she listened to in whatever car she drove on her way to work. So I stretched out on my couch and in my head I sat her down, sat myself across from her, and started asking her questions. This isn’t the clear visual picture it sounds like, because a lot of times when I don’t know the character well enough to write her voice, I also don’t have a clear idea of what she looks like. Or he, or sie, or they, or it. But I had half of an idea of Alex, and that was good enough to start talking. I asked her a few questions, those answers gave me new questions to ask, and over the course of an hour or so. I learned quite a bit about her. I also got a much better sense of how she interacts with the world outside of herself. This is why I like the character interview method, if you have a vivid not-quite-but-close-enough-for-a-descriptor auditory memory. I might not know the pitch and typical volume of her voice, but I now know the words she uses, how often she stops or interjects with flavoring words, and so on. It helps. After that, bam, 2500 words without much difficulty, several hundred of which were hers.

Characters are tricky fuckers. Entire websites and blogs have been devoted to helping people develop characters, flesh them out for fiction. I’ve got a questionnaire that I sometimes use to get me started when the details just aren’t coming, it’s a good nigh on 70 questions long. Everyone has their own method to get the voices of their characters translated from in the head to on the page, but this one is mine. But you can borrow it if you need to. I won’t tell anyone.

Inspiration Is A Dirty, Dirty Word

I’ve been talking about inspiration, perspiration (desperation, procrastination) and other wittily rhyming things a lot lately. If I’d had advance warning that I’d be blathering on in such related topics, I might have made it a series. But I didn’t; each post was inspired by the one that came before it, and I had and have no idea how long this would go on. So, as the wise man was fond of saying, it goes.

Inspiration is bullshit. Inspiration is a filthy, filthy lie. We start out with an idea, that idea moves us to plan a work, and if we’re lucky inspiration carries us through the first quarter or so of that work. Then the idea becomes stale. Our fingers never move as fast as our minds can. We think on the idea so long it becomes boring, we plan it out until all the newness that energized us is squeezed out of it to the last drop. And then, a lot of times, we find something newer, shinier. Better, we sometimes think. Or it just falls by the wayside as we move on with all the other things going on in our lives.

And this is why writers groan whenever someone says “I have a brilliant idea, you can have it and write it and we’ll split the credit.”

And this is why I groan whenever someone says “I would write that thing but it just doesn’t inspire me anymore.”

Bullshit. A thousand plus words of bullshit that I wrote just last week on Assglue. Inspiration is a tricky little shit who will show up just when you’re looking for a distraction and leave when you sit down to work. Anything longer than you can write in fifteen minutes or so is a product not of inspiration, but of dedication and persistence. Finished works are what happen when you sit your ass down in that chair and make them happen, regardless of your ability to concentrate or your enthusiasm for the project or how much you’re feeling it right now. The inspiration is great for that initial idea that comes to you in the middle of the night as you’re falling asleep, or in the shower when you can’t get to a pen and paper, and I fully endorse grabbing those moments and getting them down somewhere where you can go back to them later. But never, ever let yourself believe for an instant that inspiration is something you always need to work.

Let’s take a different scenario. You’re lucky enough to have a job where you’re writing day after day, or someone’s requested you to write something, or you’ve signed up for a contest and now you have to come up with something. Where’s your inspiration? Oh, that little bastard left the building hours ago. Undependable fucker. You have to make your own inspiration sometimes, find it wherever you can get it, look for it in some damn unlikely places. I was involved in a writing project at one point where I was given an assignment and expected to turn it around as soon as possible, ideally within an hour or two. The assignment given involved ballet dancers, both actual/historical and in a general whoever-you-can-make-up sense. Now, to an extent this is cheating, I was given the assignment because I was familiar with ballet, but I still had nothing but a couple names and a theme to write on. So I got my dumb ass up and I put on some music and I did some ballet around the room, and that gave me a point from which to start. Inspiration can be found, or it can be made. And then sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is no flash of inspiration, and you have to make the writing happen one word in front of the other, pushing that boulder up that hill by sheer effort and no little push from a muse. This, too, is why inspiration is bullshit.

I expect people still like to talk about writing as though it was some mystical thing that happened in garrets, fortified by whiskey and accompanied by great amounts of pathos and solitude. Or sometimes great amounts of beer, sugar, and music, depending on which writers you follow. I haven’t thought of it that way in a while; to me, as you’ve seen from the blog posts here, writing is something accompanied by sitting my ass down and putting my fingers to a keyboard, and a lot of swearing. Inevitably, writing is also accompanied by me going off on a tangent somewhere and “shit, that’s a great idea, I need to write about that” and then either myself, my editrix, or another friend laughing and “no, finish your work.” Because inspiration is cheap, flighty, and a shithead. It refuses to give advance warning, conform to a schedule, and do things like tell you that this is going to become a three part series or something. It refuses to come when called, and you need to either drag it by one bony ankle kicking and screaming into the light, or forge ahead without it. Never trust to inspiration. That’s bullshit.

Just write something instead, one word in front of the other. Then polish it till it shines. That’s the only work you need to do. Everything else is toppings.