Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Professional = Deadlines

The Giant of Tidesmouth won't be out on time. "On time" was supposed to be by the end of the month, and the story itself may well be finished by then, but in a completely unedited state. Unlike Three Fingers of Death, which required fairly little editing, I suspect Giant is going to need a heavy hand on the cleaver.

Not that I suspect anyone is waiting for the next Wandering Tale story with baited breath. Nobody will notice if it doesn't arrive on time or get on my case about it. The fact is, the only one setting these deadlines is myself. I'm trying to work my way into the life of a professional fiction writer, and I damn well know that it will help to act the part even before I'm there. Thus, the deadlines, and the desire to hold myself to them.

It's funny - the first time I decided to write something seriously was due to my hatred of deadlines. I wrote a story when I was in second grade, for school, but it was due before I could make it really good (to my seven-year-old mind). I tried again in third grade, and it got a lot longer. Then I had an epiphany: Why bother writing it for school?

I worked on the 'full version' of that story for years. Until I was twelve or thirteen, I think. I abandoned it after realizing that I'd come up with the plot when I was eight, and it was just as derivative and self-insertion heavy as you could imagine. Still, it was a beginning. All without a deadline.

Of course, the reason I was writing it for years without any end in sight is partially because there was no deadline. No deadline means no pressure, and no pressure means it will likely never get done. I will endlessly tinker with a story long after the point when it should have been done, even if I finished the first version ages ago. "Stories are never finished - only abandoned," as the saying goes.

I also know that even a self-published professional author needs to be producing new things if he wants to stay a professional author, and so I thought it a good idea to get into the habit of writing on a deadline more. Sadly, the fact is that because it brings me scant little income (so far...) writing has to be one of the first things that gets pushed aside when other responsibilities await. These last couple of months have been thick with them.

I promise myself, though - or rather, threaten myself - that come summer, I will be keeping to my deadlines. Or else I won't get any dessert.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Watched Pot...

Maybe it is just a sign that I watch my book download stats far, far too closely (though from what I can gather, this is true of damn near all self-published authors, even the really successful ones) but I've noticed that I haven't sold anything since Saturday!

And here I thought the luck o' the Irish would help me out, being half Irish and all. Hmph!

In other news, I seem to be trying to write both the next two entries of The Wandering Tale at the same time. I keep needing to pry the later story out of the current one. Must... stick... to the point... of the series...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lessons from the Roundtable Podcast

I was recently a guest writer on The Roundtable Podcast's second episode. I was 'pitching' the idea for a science fiction book, and the idea is that they match me up with a veteran writer who, along with the two hosts of the podcast itself, will help me refine the initial idea into a superior form.

I met one of the hosts, Dave Robison, through the Mythic Scribes forums. He read some of the work I had put up and has been very generous with his support and advice, especially in all things podcasting (which I intend to follow up with as soon as spring - and leisure time - rolls around).

 I'll be touching on the following points in this followup:
-My Preparation/Performance
-The Suggestions of the Roundtable
-Additional Thoughts on the Process

My Performance:
I think that my pitch, in hindsight, was poor. Sadly I could not have devoted much more time to it when this was recorded. I was bringing up too many technicalities and 'neat' details when I should have been dealing more with larger points of the story and leave the details out - or bring them up later when they are more pertinent.

After that, I think I improved. I've always been open to sincerely-offered criticism and am a member of a regular online workshop. 

The Suggestions:
Overall, very insightful and helpful. It was especially useful that Nathan Lowell and I think about story telling in rather different ways. For interest, one topic that came up early and often was the concern over theme. As I mentioned in the podcast, I don't do themes - not consciously, at least. I do not write a story with the intent of pushing a theme or a moral. Some of them will certainly emerge (that is probably inevitable) and if there is a good one I might try to polish it a bit. 

However, because of the way I feel about the interpretation of fiction (and all art, for that matter) I don't usually bother trying to clarify my interpretation of my own stories. Fiction can be both a lens and a mirror, but it is up to the reader to determine which it will be at any given point. 

A couple more subjects that came up:
Early Story/Impact of Galactic Civilization - As to the possibility of taking the Avatar route, nah. Done too famously and too recently. Plus, I definitely want to stick with the idea of a resource-poor planet retarding the tech development of Proto's species. The idea of social conquest (or pollution, as it was put in the podcast) is very much attractive to me, though. The impact of high technology on the various clans is something I'll be putting a great deal more thought into.

All Aliens? - I think we were tripped up by my casual use of the term. I of course did not mean to suggest that my characters were utterly alien. I simply meant that they were not of the species homo sapiens. There shouldn't be any problem  creating a sympathetic character of another species, as we've seen in countless sci-fi and fantasy stories. 

Why is the Spaceport there? - Upon more reflection, this isn't as important a question as I was starting to think it might be. Certainly, there needs to be a reason, but beyond certain parameters (not heavily used, not there for mining extraction) I think it can remain up in the air for awhile longer.

One Book? - Possibly the most important thing I was reminded of in the podcast! Thank you Nathan! In my hurry to tell the story about the Big Dumb Neat Event (Proto's transformation) I was ignoring the fact that I have a lot of background that I need to explore. My readers need to be comfortable with both Proto as a character and the rest of the (fictional) universe before I can go turning it on its head. I'm now thinking the first book might cover an arc that ends after Proto becomes a merc, but not too far after. There is also still the possibility of a first book dealing entirely with Proto on his home planet, in exile. Won't know until I write it!

Additional Thoughts:
A suggestion to other guest writers: I think the best criteria for the story ideas you bring to the Roundtable are ones that you have serious reservations with, but plenty of ideas for. Dave and Brion are both very creative people, and the veterans they're lining up are top-notch as well. Let them help you smooth out those issues. Furthermore, let them help you consolidate all those ideas into an actual storyline - that seemed to be the way Episode 2 went. All in all, I think this is the best of my story ideas I could have brought to them. I'm glad I picked it.

My voice: I sounded like a dork, but oh well. :) Nobody likes the sound of their voice on a recording...

There are no doubt other things I forgot, but this post is getting too long as it is. Thank you David, Brion, and Nathan for your help and your support!

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Delights - and Dangers - of "In Jokes"

"Protect the land and despoil the sea? It seems an odd bunch of rules to me."

This is a line from the story I'm currently writing - "The Giant of Tidesmouth." Obviously, there is more to it, and I expect many of my readers will get it and enjoy the reference.

But if you don't, I'm not telling you what it is. Neener neener.

Of course, if I hadn't told you there was something more to get, then those of you who saw nothing beyond the line of dialogue would not have known you were missing anything. Which, generally speaking, is good. In jokes are great for the people who share in them, but they make others feel excluded and that won't make readers feel welcome.

Thus, I try to make them subtly. I love making references, and homages, and little tributes to the artists and the people and the things that I love. I do it all the time. I even have some 'big' ones planned. Snippets of a song lyrics or a particularly poignant turn of phrase that I intend to - ahem - "borrow" into my books at some point. I do not intend to make them stick out. They will blend and only the people who instantly recognize the borrowed bit will know what I was doing - ideally,  the tribute will blend so completely that even those people wonder if it was intentional.

After all, too much reference becomes gratuitous and gets in the way of the story - even self-reference, which has the added sin of being masturbatory. I'm talking story-telling sin, not religious, folks. As I hint at in the post where I introduced The Wandering Tale, I want people to be able to read these stories, starting anywhere in the series, and never have the feeling they were missing anything. Characters and themes and events might reappear, but in a quiet way. Too much self-reference would ruin the stand-alone nature of each story. Readers would know that there was something there weren't getting, and feel like I was pushing them to read the other parts. I don't want that - I want them to read cuz the writing is just so damned good.

This may be one of the hardest parts of writing this series. Despite being in my anti-epic kick for a little while, I normally like an expansive narrative, and it is in my nature to write that way. Perhaps it will be good practice to ensure that each entry into The Wandering Tale can stand proudly alone.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Art of Editing

Normally, I'm the kind of writer that moves fairly slowly through a story. I don't tend to write scenes out of order and I don't move on from a scene until I'm happy with it. This fits with my general philosophy of "Get it right the first time!"

As I try out self-publishing and start thinking about what life would be like as a professional author, though, I've been giving thought to different strategies. Namely, the 'get the draft done quickly and revise the hell out of it' method.

Changing habits has never been easy, and this is no exception. I keep trying to revise every scene to death while I'm writing it the first time, which - as my theory goes - might be wasting time in the long run because not every scene makes it into the final version, or needs to be heavily revamped due to choices later in the story.

Thus, I'm giving the rough cut a try lately. It is very hard to move on from writing I know is bad, but I'm doing it anyway - and it is oddly liberating. Empty as it may be, it feels good to add ~1000 words to a story most times I sit down to write. It also lets me write the fun stuff more quickly (I'm not sure when I'll try writing books 'out of order.' Not sure I'll ever be that kind of writer), or at least the parts of the story I see most clearly and have better figured out.

The biggest danger I see is that it might make revisions more complicated when I rewrite scenes and change details which have an effect upstream in the story. As the chaos theory and every good movie dealing with time travel tells us, "everything depends on everything else."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Self-Pubbed Freedom

If I hadn't decided to try out self-publishing (and if services like Amazon's KDP and Smashwords weren't around to make that choice possible) I never would have been able to get stories like Swordsman of Carn Nebeth or Three Fingers of Death published. Even though they are perfectly good and I'm sure lots of people will like them, they're just too awkward a length. I can't think of even one professional venue that publishes novella-length fiction, though I imagine there are a couple out there.

I've been thinking lately of another little detail that self-published authors don't need to worry about as much, and that is cutting their stories down to size. Story length matters a lot less in digital publishing in any case. Printing costs are nonexistent and shelf space is unlimited (at least, in the physical sense).

I mentioned in my last post that the mantra of the writing world is "cut, cut, cut." Beginning writers are often told to cut every last unnecessary word out of their story. This always struck me as odd. We are writers, not chroniclers. Arguably, if a 'word' is entertaining then it is necessary. It certainly wouldn't do to simply state the cold-blooded events of a narrative - that's not a story, it's an outline.

I've always wondered how much of that pressure comes from the publishing industries worries about cost versus how much comes from actual concern about the best methods to tell a story. I'll bet that a lot of really good passages and wonderful character development has ended up on the cutting room floor over the years. It's the same thing that happens with movies: to hit a target 'theater length' a lot of scenes have to be cut out and the movie often ends up as a sub-optimal specimen until the inevitable (in these days of DVD releases) "Editor's Cut" is released. A lot of the time? Those Editor's Cuts really ARE better.

Might not the same be true of novels? How many writers have had to cut out perfectly good material because it wasn't essential to the plot? As I've said, very few things in any novel are truly essential to the plot. The element that matters is whether or not it will entertain the majority of the readers - if it adds to the quality of the book.

That being said, it makes it all the more imperative to know what adds to the quality of the book. For damn sure there still needs to be some cutting going on. It just doesn't need to be as drastic. The publishing industry impressed on us the need to do things with as few words as possible - it would be easy to fall into the trap, when self-publishing, of disregarding the value of a good lean piece of storytelling for something pudgy and fat.

Now, I don't want my stories ultra-lean or fat. As always, the optimal spot lies in between. "Fat is flavor" but it isn't substance. I'll do us all a favor and leave the meat metaphor behind (it was making me hungry anyways) and summarize that point I'm slowly realizing: Cutting is still important, but maybe we can afford to lighten up with the knife.