Friday, December 31, 2010

Writing, at last!

Research books and Scrivener
A few months ago I had a story proposal accepted - a two page summary of the plot and character(s) in a universe with which I was not familiar. I read one story fromt he series to get the universe's concept and then wrote the proposal for the kind of story I like to do. The proposal was accepted and with a deadline.

In general, I set out to write a story with only a vague notion of where it might go, but in this case I had an actual sketch of the plot in the proposal. I broke my proposal into sentences and initially designated each sentence as a scene ( use Scrivener, but any outlining tool would work as well.) These scenes were then shifted around to see which could be combined, which might stand alone, and where additional detail was needed.

That done, I put the scenes aside and began reading a number of books in the series, making copious notes along the way, bookmarking explanatory passages I could -er- adopt to my own ends, getting familiar with the language and tropes, and selecting interesting events and characters I could reference for those who might be obscenely familiar with the series oeuvre.

The next step was to pour my newly aquired knowledge into the existing scenes, add new material that occurred while researching, and then rearrange the material into a more nuanced plot. Considerable cutting and pasting moved ideas between scenes, combined some scenes and divided others. At some point the number of scenes seemed to stabilize at twenty.

One of the theories of writing says that you should have no more than three key plot points and these should occur at significant changes in the protagonist's story. That they should have a high emotional content as well goes without saying. I examined the scenes, decided which scenes would best express this, and then placed the key scenes in their proper places.

Since this was to be a short story, the narrative's time line ideally has to start shortly before the epiphany, which we will see near the end. One of the consequences of the scenes' rearrangement was that what I first planned to be a straightforward narrative now had to contain flashbacks so we could read those actions and forces that brought the protagonist to the story's critical point. This decision lead to another round of rearrangement, scene cutting, and pasting. Further research entailed until finally, and more from impatience than design, I was able to actually start composing the story told in my notes to fulfilling the promise of the proposal.

After three weeks of preparation, research, and plotting I began. I am now in the writing phase of the project and joyfully laying down the words at a prodigious (for me, anyhow) rate, amassing nearly five thousand words without straining brain or fingertips. Instead of trying to write sequentially, I've been putting narrative and dialogue into the scenes where I felt more stylistically comfortable. At times, I cut a portion that I'd just written and put in another scene or set aside to be used elsewhere.

Thus far, putting in the research and plotting effort seems to be paying off, but I will withhold judgement on this approach until the tale is told.

Stand by for further reports. I intend to update this blog when I finish the first draft.

Friday, December 24, 2010


The other week I was interviewed by Patrick Hester and John DeNardo for an SF Signal podcast. They sent me a general list of items they wanted to cover before setting up the time and place, which, since we set this up on Skype, turned out to be my office, but minus the video.

I wanted to get decent sound quality so I deadened as many hard surfaces around the computer with towels and blankets to eliminate the bucket effect, closed the door so the cats couldn't crawl around and possibly knock something over ( yes, I do have a clumsy cat.) When we got connected Patrick did a sound check, during which I scraped a chair across the floor and ruined the take.

The half hour interview went well, from my point of view. I'd learned in the past that if you don't want to sound like a brainless idiot you prepare a checklist of items to cover and whatever notes you need in case memory fails. Nothing more embarrassing then to forget the title of some piece you wrote or the name of the character under discussion. Since my memory is like a steel trap (i.e. doesn't hold water) I made LOTS of notes.

John and Patrick made the conversation easy, hitting not only the points I'd prepared for, but bringing up material I hadn't thought of before. The feel of the interview was not unlike a bull session at a con. It was so comfortable that we chatted for at least a half hour afterwards about writing, the industry, cons, and other subjects. Nice guys.

The SF Signal podcast was released on December 22, 2010 at SF Signal #122. I was very satisfied with the result, especially that I didn't sound too egotistical or dumb.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ten Stages of Story Development

This is a totally pretentious, self-referential blog that probably will have little relevance to the manner in which you prefer to write. Nevertheless, I want to get down the method that I have found most useful.

Step 1: Concept.
All stories start with the germ of an idea, a thought, or perhaps just an interesting title,first line, or ending. This germ sometimes forms the basis for a story which, after a few hours or days becomes so strong that I have no choice but to commit it to "paper." This leads me into:

Step 2: Drafting

Drafting is simply noodling with the idea, getting whatever comes to mind regarding the idea down into editable form. This step might produce a bit of characterization, a setting description, an interesting plot point, a pencil sketch of a gadget, or even a bit of the story itself, be it narrative flow or dialogue. The point here is to get whatever you can - a few thousand words, perhaps - into a form that you can review and consider before committing to:

Step 3: Plotting

Plotting is deciding what goes into the story. Have you all the pieces you need yet? What might be missing? Examine what your noodling has produced and decide if all the elements needed for a complete story are there. Do you have the set-up to lead the reader into the story? Do you know what the ending will say? Have you thought of a way to develop the exposition? Do you have an idea for the characters? Do you have all the "facts" you need? If the answer is yes then you are ready to start:

Step 4: Arranging

This step is simply rearranging the scenes you've produced into some semblance of order, hopefully an arrangement that reveals what might be missing e.g. how to get from here to there. There is no simple answer as to how to do this. The final story sequence is not yet important so long as some logical order of the story elements emerges. If you have no idea of what might work then try a simple chronological order. Hopefully, this step will reveal more missing pieces that you'll need to add before you start:

Step 5: Production

Yes, this is more noodling, but this time only to fill in the blanks, be they facts, transitions,or bits of dialogue. While doing this I usually go over earlier material and make necessary changes,additions,etc wherever I see the need. This step produces a rough draft that must then undergo:

Step 6: Polishing and Smoothing

This is where the writer parses the sentences so that they sing, eradicating false notes in the narrative and correcting the "wrong" voices in the dialogue. Grammar and spelling are corrected in this step as well. Once the polishing and smoothing are completed you will have the penultimate draft, one which is mechanically suitable for publication. That is, if you don't want to start:

Step 7: Re-Arranging.

Maybe the best way to tell this story isn't what you originally thought. You might want to play with the time line or move the scenery about to make the epiphany or ending more (or less) profound. Maybe you don't want the murder to take place first but be developed later in the tale. Maybe some plot element would work better as backstory, or maybe a bit of foreshadowing should be added. You should always feel free to play with the story sequence if nothing more than to see what happens. I once committed scenes to cards and the shuffled them to reveal a more interesting order than I was working with. Play around and see what comes before you start:

Step 8: Layering

This is the enjoyable step where you add little bits of detail here and there; adding some symbolism if you wish. Layering is just like decorating the Christmas tree with tinsel. A word of caution: a light touch usually works best.

Step 9: Final Polish

Going over the finished draft with an objective eye is necessary. You have become so familiar with the story by this time that you cannot, will not, be able to see the glaring flaws. Put the printed draft aside for few days so you can return with fresh eyes and make corrections. Reading the story aloud to yourself often helps.

Step 10: Submission

No story is complete until it is published and that will never happen unless it is sent to an editor for consideration. Always assume that the first few submissions will be rejected and be prepared to send it out again the instant a rejection arrives. Persistence is frequently successful but understand that rejection is a fact of the writer's life.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Impressions of World Fantasy 2010

As a hard science fiction writer my attendance at conventions has been limited to those focusing mainly on SF, not Fantasy. After all, what possible benefit could I, a hard SF short story writer, get from a freaking Fantasy - for Gods sake - convention? Nobody in that crowd could possibly know me. Worse yet, I feared that I wouldn't know anyone among all the fey folk who would probably be sporting dragons on their shoulders, wearing fairy wings, and lurking about in capes.

Not my sort of thing at all!

So, much to my surprise when I arrived at Columbus I immediately run into four writer friends, who I vaguely recalled were into this fantasy crap. Then there were two more people I'd spoken to at other cons but who I'd imagined were SF writers, not fairy dusters. Maybe they were local, I thought. Probably got comped as well.

Rising early the next morning I found Ester, the WFC GoH, the only early riser in the hotel restaurant who engaged me in a quick lesson on WFC. "It's a fucking BUSINESS meeting," she ever so charmingly said over coffee. At which point a coven of agents and editors, some of whom I knew, but mostly did not, magically materialized. At registration there were more familiar faces, and then more, and more until it finally dawned on my that most of the attendees were WRITERS. Not a dragon among them, not a pair of fairy wings nor wicked capes polluted the convention center. Staggering away from the registration desk with fifty pounds of free books and assorted paraphernalia I ran into some more friends, and then even more.

The first session was a revelation for it was packed by writers, which made for an interesting dynamic, both from the aspect of demeanor and the types of questions being asked, all far different from the fannish type I so frequently encounter at other conventions. That impression was only strengthened by succeeding panels and readings - OMG, the readings! The readings were wonderful! As a fantasy virgin I was swept away by hearing the words coming from the author's own heart, hearing the voice of the stories unfold the way the writer intended, with emphasis at all the right places. Never had I imagined so much richness and, even though much of it was not to my personal reading taste, I was nevertheless impressed.

At the end of the day the bar area turned into an oriental bazaar of haggling and bargaining. A deafening roar of people excitedly exchanging ideas, passing rumors, making requests, and performing all the business of writing heartily, all of which was enthusiastically lubricated by wicked, eldritch drinks. Subject matter aside, WFC was turning out to be disturbingly like so many regular business conferences I'd attended through my corporate career. To the casual passers-by the crowd would appear to seem like any other gathering of mundanes, while they remained unknowing of the magical spells being cast by agents and editors, publishers and writers. Neither would they be sensitive to the heroic battles being waged to gain the prize of significant attention.

Did I mention parties? Oh lord, emerging from the elevator on the party floor you find yourself immediatly shoulder to shoulder with writers on every level and, in the rooms where liquid refreshment beckons like sirens, you find yourself talking to someone who just made SFWA's qualification and, turning around, enter a conversation with one of the giants of the field who is as excited and interesting as everyone else. Hallway conversations include WFC, Hugo, Nebula, Endevour, etc, etc award winners talking about the business, future, and problems of our singularly hermitic life styles. It is like dying and going to the Valhalla of writers.

I drove away from Columbus too soon, leaving so many ungreeted, so many discussions not concluded, and so little work being done: I usually finish a couple of pages at cons in my spare time, but not here, not where so many tempting distractions lurked at every turn. But every good thing ends and the long drive home gave me an opportunity to recover from the three-day adrenaline rush and sort out the actual business that I'd realized I'd practically accidentally conducted with editors, enough potential work to keep me busy for a few more months.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention it. I really, really, really, really freaking enjoyed WFC!!!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Capclave Recap

This year's Capclave was rather more interesting than most. It was as if all my writer friends had gathered for this one occasion. My reading was well attended, although in part because Morrow preceded me with a wonderful extract of his latest work. My reading took exactly 30 minutes, which left no time for comments or questions, but that was fine. The crowd reaction as I read told me all I needed to know. The pick-up lunch with Connie Willis, Michael Swanwick, John Hemry, John Wright, and L.G Lamplighter was fun, although I was thoroughly im-Palined by Connie. Two readings and and three panels filled the afternoon, followed by the mass signing event where all the writers in attendance sat around while Connie's line snaked around the room. All in all a most satisfactory con.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Writing and Running

Marjorie Lui, who attended LaunchPad with me in July 2010, recently wrote at about maintaining your passion while writing. If you remain interested, she contended, so will your readers.

I liken writing to running and, for myself, I find it easier to maintain a high state of excitement and interest in either only for brief periods. In one sense I am a sprinter, focusing on the goal at the end of the course and not very interested in on the path. Just like you cannot sprint carrying too much weight, a short story's interest cannot be maintained if it carries too many words/characters/scenes/events. In both cases, one must cast off the unnecessary, avoid distractions, and race for the end as fast as possible.

Novels, on the other hand, are like marathons. One can start with great enthusiasm down the path with a clear sight of the route ahead but somewhere along the way interest starts to flag and, at the halfway point, it becomes a matter of putting down one word after another and wondering if you have enough of that initial enthusiasm left to keep going.

As in marathons a wall awaits. Somewhere along about seventy thousand you find yourself drained of ideas, enthusiasm, and even words. The ending is still a long way ahead and you suddenly realize that you have only a vague idea of how to get there. Continuing beyond this point feels like you are piling one lifeless word, one limp sentence, one appallingly bad paragraph on top of another, adding to the tragedy of pages you have steadily accumulated over weeks, months, and years. Is there any sense in continuing this farce, you ask yourself as you continue. Eventually, if you have not totally abandoned all hope and maybe after a break to refresh the old story-telling muscle, you return to the race and, when you are in sight of the goal line, sprint like hell so you can tell yourself that you are - unbelievably and astoundingly - finished!

And then a little bitty bitchy voice comes from no where and tells you that the finish is an illusion. "Back to the starting line," it demands and you find yourself retracing your entire run, step by step, word by word, exploring all the little byways and digressions, continually asking if it was necessary to the rambling plot, should I have gone this way or that, why did he change his name here and who is this character that appears to be so interesting only to disappear without explanation. Question after question, you climb over enormous, numbing blocks of text that seemed so golden when written but now make no sense. You move entire scenes from one place to another and then, just when you've finish the course for the second time, you realize that you have to do it ALL OVER AGAIN!

It takes far more than interest and passion to finish a novel. It takes grit, perseverance, and dedication. Enthusiasm alone cannot sustain you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Scene Theory 103

Essential in most story lines is the sense of growth, of moving from one state of being to another. This could be personal change in an individual or the achievement of a goal. The progress of moving from one state to another is termed the major story arc and it is this that drives the plot to the finish line. The major arc usually has multiple stages - an initial state or set of conditions, various changes to that state or those conditions, and the final state. The rule of three generally applies. That is, that there should be two failures before the final success.

Each of the failure episodes or arcs begins with a set of conditions, passes through some sort of action, and then achieves the final failure. Only the third and final attempt does success occur. This is a pretty strict rule in that more failures would be boring and achieving success quickly provides no satisfaction to the reader. The other reason is that each of the attempts allows the writer to present alternatives that might work, but contain a fatal and usually unforeseen flaw. Ideally, the protagonist learns from each failure. Also, each lack of success informs the next attempt in some way.

Scene Theory 102

So what is scene theory? Algis Budrys once remarked that all short stories were jokes, meaning that they had the set up, some exposition, an epiphany, and a punch line and, sure enough, if you analyze most short stories you can decompose these along those lines. Along the way the writer can dig into his bag of tricks of flashback, foreshadowing, asides, and other embellishments that add spice to the story's stew.

But a story is not simply a recitation of facts told in a specific order. A story evolves from the set up to the punch line by means of a series of set pieces. These set pieces or scenes, all share some common elements.

Characters, be they human, aliens, machines, or even some inanimate object, are what drive the story. In every story there is one character who stands out. This character is usually termed the protagonist and could be presented as the viewpoint or object of the viewpoint character. Everything revolves around the protagonist, who is generally supported by a cast of spear carriers - secondary characters who act in support of or opposed to the protagonist.

Place is the second important element of a scene. Every scene is anchored somewhere specific. Locations have descriptions and are usually, but not always, are placed in relation to the primary scene of the action. Generally the plot moves the characters back and forth across locations to provide variety, to separate portions of the action, to inform the reader, or simply to have the characters come into play with one another.

Just as characters move across the landscape toward the punch line they also move down a time line. One of the rules of short story writing is to start the action as close to the epiphany as possible and build from there. Usually this involves a bit of back story in the exposition, but not always. The timeline of the story does not necessarily proceed in sequential order. I've written many stories where the sequence of the story jumped back and forth across the time line, but never ignored the fact that any action is always embedded in a timeline like a fly in amber.

Is that all it is? Is a story nothing more than following the Budrys joke structure and ensuring that each element contains characters acting somewhere at some point in time? Will doing this be enough to build a decent short story?

Sadly, the answer is no - there are three other things that come into play.