Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How I changed The Future by writing about The Past

Well, hello there. *sizes you up in a marginally creepy, yet obviously inept and comedic fashion*

I had so many plans for this post over the last few days, but finally decided that if I posted everything that was squishing around in my brain, it would be linked to in the dictionary definition of tl:dr. So I might someday blog some of that other squish as part of an Untweetworthy, or a new segment I've been considering entitled something clever like "RANTY PANTS" or "I LIKE TO YELL SOMETIMES, AND HERE'S WHY." I'm still thinking that one over.

For now, I want to post something about writing. Specifically, about what I am writing right now, and how I've shocked and confused myself about half a dozen times this week by the unfolding events. If you are not interested in my writing posts and only show up here hoping to point and laugh at my life, then please to be enjoying this gif of a baby turtle who thinks he can fly. I promise I'll make it up to you soon.

If you're still with me, then thank you! I will try to make this as entertaining and free of angst as possible. Like everything to do with writing, there is a dollop of angst, though, so please bear with me. I will reward you at the end.

When I set out to write what is essentially my main character's origin story, I was extremely excited. I mean, I'd already written THREE novels about her (one done and ready, one half way through edits, and one in first-draft-rough-as-hell form). I've had a year and a half to think about her, her history, her life, where she was born, and the events that made her into the person (well, shapeshifting dragon, but she thinks of herself as a person) she is today. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE EASIER?!

Performing an appendectomy on myself with a rusty spoon would probably be easier, and possibly less painful.

You may think I am crazy. You'd be right, but that's beside the point. If I already know everything that happens in her long history, all I have to do is write it all down, right? It's like writing from the most complete outline ever! True, but writing something about a character that already exists (at least for me, I feel like she's a real person{DON'T JUDGE ME, I KNOW YOU DO THIS, TOO}), writing about the events that shape her into the person she becomes, feels like time travel. PAGING THE DOCTOR, CAN YOU PRESCRIBE SOMETHING FOR THE WIBBLY-WOBBLIES?

Time travel creates paradoxes. If you go to the past, you could potentially change history and warp events in such a way that you'd never been born. So then how could you have traveled back in time in the first place? Then those events that prevented your birth would never have happened, and you would've been born, then traveled back in time preventing your birth... and so on, ad nauseum. Paradox.

Writing this prequel (tentatively titled TORN), I've had a chance to travel back into the distant past and tinker with things. I've been able to flesh out details I'd only considered in passing before. Sometimes that fleshing out has created weird lumps and loops that I never saw coming. Some of them will change details of the "later" novels I've already written. Nothing big, nothing earth-shattering, but a few personal relationships will be different, and so will some of the magic. I can handle that. It will make her a stronger character in the long run. It will also give more history to a few other important characters. Always good.

The real problems hit me last night and this morning. Here they are in better detail:

1. Every novel I've written to this point (this will be my sixth complete novel) has clocked in around 100k words. When I started writing TORN, I assumed it would fit into the same mold. It doesn't. It's sitting at about 65k right now, and is at least 3/4 done.  All told, it will probably land right about 80k. Revisions probably won't change that total much. When I realized this last night, I had a near panic attack. THIS IS FANTASY. FANTASY NEEDS TO BE LONGER. Then I calmed down. Nope. Fantasy doesn't need to be longer. It needs to be exactly how long the story requires it to be. This story needs to be about 80k. I am okay with that now.

2. I was weirded out to discover that, despite the rest of the books in this series being firmly in the Adult Urban Fantasy genre, this one is probably closer to NA. So thank the elements that NA is an Official Thing now, at least according to Publisher's Marketplace. So, phew! What makes this NA as opposed to Adult? Well, it's an origin story. It takes place at a pivotal moment in the MC's life, where she has her first taste of what it means to be an adult. She has to spread her wings and fly on her own. Literally even, since she's a dragon, and has actual wings, and flies. :D

3. I told Helper Monkey about the Word Count Panic Attack this morning. As is my wont, my innocent remark led to a 10 minute babble session, during which I continued talking at the poor man until I realized what was really bugging me. I found a different kind of time travel paradox. Since I know this character and her world so well, is TORN a full enough novel to relate to for a reader who has never read the other books? Is it so short because it doesn't need to be longer in my mind, even though a new reader would be left scratching their head? I guess the only way to find out is to finish writing it, and then let someone read it. No reason to get all angsty about it until then, right? *nervous laughter*

So there you go. My weekly writing dilemmas.

If you're still reading at this point, I can only imagine you are also a writer, or just curious about writing. How ya doing? What are you writing, and what sort of ledges have you had to talk yourself down off of recently? All writing involves walking precariously close to the edges of cliffs. As long as you don't fall off, everything else can be edited. :D

And your reward for sticking through this with me? Here you go:

Friday, April 19, 2013


Like most Americans, I've had an emotional roller coaster of a week. There's been an awful lot of awful. I've gone back and forth, through shock, mourning, anger, helplessness, fascination, rage, grief, and the occasional smile at the spirit of us as a people to keep getting back up when we get knocked down. It's been hard.

I wanted to share my love and pain for the city of Boston. My mom grew up there, and I spent summers as a child there. I have family there. I love the city. I even made it my Main Character's home.

Then there is the tragic explosion in Texas. And the failure of Congress to pass legislation to regulate the sales of firearms. And a dozen other little things, some personal and some national, that have worn on me all week, to the point where I don't know whether to shit or go bowling, as Helper Monkey likes to say.

I've decided to go bowling. Not really, but I've decided I need a brain-breather. I've also decided I won't feel guilty about not being able to handle any more news right now. I just want five minutes that isn't about a tragedy. I need to smile for a few seconds right now.

To that end, here are a few funny telling snippets from my life. Maybe they'll give you a few seconds to smile, too.

Helper Monkey and I went to the grocery store today. On the way home, we were telling bad jokes. Like, How do you recognize a dogwood tree? By its bark. *insert rimshot here* This "joke" was met with derision rather than giggles, so I moved on.

A minute or two later, I told an ACTUALLY funny joke, which cracked me up so hard it apparently drove said funny thing out of my head forever. I'll ask Helper Monkey if he remembers what it was, so I can tell y'all. Until then, you'll have to pretend to laugh at the dogwood joke. Why is it always the best lines that evaporate into mental steam the moment you decide they'd make a great tweet?

Last week, Helper Monkey and I were watching Jeopardy! (remember, it's not spelled correctly without the bang!), and were incensed that none of the contestants could name the "alliterative Mongol leader." Because there were obviously so freaking many of them! Name all the Mongol leaders you can. I'll give you five seconds, and GO!

Right? I bet you got Genghis Khan, for sure. I really do hope you also knew Kublai Khan, as well. And lookie there! Alliteration! And that exhausted my knowledge of Mongol leaders. It's not like there are a confusing jumble of popular Khans to choose from. (shakes fist at sky, "KHAAAAAAAN")

In our indignation, we invented a brother for Kublai Khan. The outcast and rather reviled Kenny Khan, purveyor of dubious-quality second-hand yurts. He offers free valet yak parking, and is happy to toast your new home purchase with a cup of koumis. (Helper Monkey's dramatization of Kenny Khan was done, for reasons unknown, in a Brooklyn accent, but it was somehow funnier that way.)

(In case you don't know, a yurt is a portable tent-like home, and koumis is a common alcoholic drink in Mongolia, made from fermented mare's milk. You're welcome.)

Also, someone should reimagine the poem "Kublai Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (which is one of my favorites ever), as "Kenny Khan"

In Xanadu did Kenny Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree,
Where Ralph, the yak valet will run
through yurt-fields measureless to man
down to the Sunless C.

*I'd have to explain that the Sunless C is actually a yurt model guaranteed not to let in one bit of outside light, let alone rain water or the frigid sub-Siberian winds. It is their Number One Seller, after all! It's larger than the Sunless B, but lacks some of the luxury features of the Sunless D. Kenny's ad campaign bills it as "The Pleasure Dome of Family Yurts."

And now I've run out of smiles. If you'd like an extended distraction, please feel free to finish Kenny's story in poetry. If anyone takes me up on the challenge, I'd love to read the results.

Just remember, it's okay to want to look away for a while. We aren't obligated to torture ourselves, we aren't bad people for suffering 24-hour-news-cycle-fatigue. We all need to step away once in a while. I planned to write tonight. I think I need the distraction. I will not allow myself to feel that the rest of the world will fall apart (any more than it has already) if my eyeballs aren't glued to the news.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Admitting to being a writer.

I considered titling this "Confessing to being a writer," but I think "admitting" is better. I'm not ashamed of writing, but telling other people how I spend my days invites a series of inquiries that I find horribly frustrating. After telling a few folks last night that I'm a writer, I found myself delivering the inevitable lecture about the realities of writing and publishing. I bet all the writers reading this are nodding their heads right now.

If you're not a writer, or are new to writing, here are a few informational pointers. This is intended in the spirit of loving human compassion, so I apologize in advance if parts (or vast swaths) seem to be coming from a place of snarkiness. I will keep reminding myself that not only is this information not generally known to the non-publishing public, most of this info was completely unknown to me until I'd written my first novel and began researching how to get published, just under two years ago.

The first question I get when I tell people I'm a writer (because I am, I write things, like whole book length things, 100k word novels) is invariably some variation on this sentiment: OH! WHAT HAVE YOU WRITTEN? HAVE I READ IT? WHERE CAN I BUY IT RIGHT NOW? HOW MANY BOOKS HAVE YOU SOLD?

My response at this point is usually to turn red, stutter, and admit I've never sold a single book. This is the hardest admission for a writer, because the other person, who moments ago was all eager like a puppy with a new toy, will slump back and instantly lose about 90% of their interest in you. I mean, why wouldn't they lose interest? A second ago, at least in their minds, you were a Big Time Author, and now you're just a kook who writes stuff. A loser. At least, that's how it feels sometimes. And then I remind myself that they're only responding with disappointment because they don't know what it actually takes to write, edit, find an agent, find a publisher, edit some more, and then publish a successful novel.

After my admission, a common follow-up question is: OH, THEN HAVE YOU EVEN WRITTEN A WHOLE BOOK YET?! Because obviously, if I'd gone ahead and FINISHED a book, it would've been published by now. Riiiiight.

Again, my reply makes me feel even smaller. I have to tell them that I've written five complete novels, and I'm working on a sixth. For me, this is the most terrifying, horrifying thing to admit to anyone outside the writing and publishing world. I can see the pity filling their eyes. I just know they're thinking, "Oh, your poor, sad little creature. FIVE WHOLE NOVELS SO SPECTACULARLY BAD YOU'VE FAILED TO SELL A SINGLE COPY OF A BOOK EVER." I then imagine them patting my head like a three-year-old who just admitted in public, repeatedly, in a very loud voice, usually in mixed company, that they made poo poo in the toilet. Yeah. That's kind of how it feels.

And then I feel I have to justify myself. More on this in a moment. But first, I usually give a little lecture about the Realities of Publishing. You may find these tidbits comforting next time you find yourself in this situation, on either side of this little drama (as the writer or as the non-writer).

  • Just because you've written a WONDERFUL, GLORIOUS NOVEL doesn't mean it gets published and hits the NYT bestseller list by the following Monday. Even the most famous writers have to wait for their publication window to roll around. It can take years. Literally.
  • You don't just write that MASTERPIECE OF LITACHER and then pick an agent out of the phone book to represent you. You don't hire an agent like you'd hire an employee. It's a weird hybrid sort of position, where you kind of hire each other. You apply to agents like someone seeking a job, send a resume (in publishing this is known as a query letter) that details your book and a bit about you. Then the agent reads your stuff, and decides whether or not they want you as a client. After a little back and forth, it's still up to you whether or not you want to hire the agent.
  • There are 46 bazillion writers in the universe. (*note: this might be a slight exaggeration, but probably not) A fair portion of them are seeking representation through an agent. There are only a few thousand literary agents, and substantially fewer who even represent the genre any given writer...writes. There is a lot of competition. It's also not a quick process. It can take months between finishing the novel, querying, and hearing back from agents who are interested. This is also the worst time to field questions from people about how your writing is going. We feel adrift at sea already, and need to be peeled off the ceiling every time the phone rings or the email alert chimes. This is when those withering looks of pity and assumptions of our failures sting the most.
  • There are sometimes questions about why I haven't gone ahead and self-published by now. I mean, really. It's so easy nowadays, right? Just stick it up on Amazon or the like, and BOOM. Instant bestseller, right? Not exactly. There are thousands of self-published books being released into the universe every single day. Unless I have the time, money, and resources to spend marketing and promoting my book (which would be as much work as a full-time job, by the way), then it would likely sell a few copies to my friends and then fizzle out of existence. I want to make writing a life-long career. The goal isn't to produce a single novel that dies in obscurity just to see my name in print. I'm in no hurry. While self-pub might be the perfect option for someone else, I would be a total failure at it. I just don't have the business-marketing-promotional skills.
  • The people who ask these questions are not deliberately trying to be hurtful. They just don't know what goes into writing and publishing a successful novel. Be kind, and educate them a bit. They might turn out to be your most ardent supporters down the line!
Okay, then. Back to my justification. Five novels and not one sold? Wow, you must be a terrible writer.

No, not really, but the first two were my "practice novels," written before I learned anything about the realities of the book market. They taught me how to be a better writer. I never sought publication for them. Maybe someday, after they've been completely rewritten, but for now they live under my bed, where the world is safe from them.

Okay, but what about the other three? They're not good enough to sell, either?

Well, considering they are a SERIES, I can't sell the second two until after the first one is published. I haven't been querying the first one for the last several months. I've had some positive responses, but in the end, I was told it wasn't quite ready yet.

Then I had a revelation. One agent told me they wanted to know more about the characters. There were hints in the story about a really interesting history, a looooooong backstory. She wanted to read THAT novel, about that history. *insert flashing light bulb here* So I started writing it. I'm now about half way through that draft, but it will need editing and critiquing from my writing friends before I send it out. Maybe six weeks of work, if I get this draft done soon!

*cue renewal of interest in my writing* OH! So you're not a TOTAL failure, yet. Right? There's still hope for you?

Nope. I will only ever be a failure if I quit trying. I REPEAT: I WILL ONLY EVER BE A FAILURE IF I QUIT TRYING.

So there. Have any of you had this conversation before? How did you deal with it? Because I was double-teamed on it last night. One of the participants in the conversation had known about my writing since last summer. She assumed I'd been long-published by now, and was mildly disappointed that I wasn't. The other person learned of my writing for the first time, so he was a little less disappointed in my lack of publishing credits, but I still felt the sting. Consider this post my way of dealing with their double-whammy. :)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Talking to people who can't hear you

No, not even sign language will help get your point across to characters, whether they be on film, on television, or in a book. The closest I've come to actual communication is dealing with the characters I write. I mean, they sprouted from my own head, you'd think I'd be able to make them listen to what I have to say. More on that in a minute though. First, a funny anecdote or two.

Helper Monkey and I love watching crime shows on TV. His biggest frustration with me (which I'm sure I've blogged about in the past) is Writer Brain Syndrome, in which I've figured out the bad guy and his motive long before the end of the show, and then spend the next 30 minutes mumbling, "Nope, it's not that guy," or, "You're on the right track, now just ask him about..."

In return, he sometimes likes to talk back to the characters, too. This morning, while watching an episode of Bones, he made his usual comments to Temperance. "Oh, please. Stop being so deliberately obtuse." I think he's convinced everyone else on the show has the patience of Job to deal with someone who takes everything literally.

One of our favorite past times (which we're engaging in while I write this post) is heckling the Amazing Race. It's so easy to judge when we're sitting comfortably on the couch with our feet up. But still, it's a great way to feel like a real genius. YOU DING DONG! YOU KEEP MISSING THE OSTRICH! (thanks for pointing it out for the viewers, making it look completely obvious, and accenting their failure by playing the menacing "ZHIIIIIING" sound effect, camera dude!) LOOK TO YOUR RIGHT! Bah.

Lately, I've been catching myself doing these same things while writing, as if the characters I made up inside my brain and continue to create moment by moment as I type weren't actually under my control. I'm now convinced that writers suffer from a mild form of dissociative disorder. There is a cast of thousands inside my head, but they're not aware of each other until I filter them through the keyboard and onto the page. They don't talk to each other, or to me for that matter. Their story unfolds in real time through my fingers, but since they're all coming from a real (imaginary) place inside my head, and I still can't talk to them directly, they let me know what they want as I write. Their personalities grow in ways that often surprise me.

I thought I knew everything about my main character, at least all the important details. I'm writing a prequel to the trilogy of novels I've already written, so I thought I knew her and her history. Well, SURPRISE, MOTHERFATHER! Turns out, she had something major going on with this other guy who was only supposed to be a plot device. Once I started writing him, simply as a way to carry the story forward, I realized he had a lot more going on than I wanted or needed him to.

I intended to make him irrelevant by chapter 3, a footnote in her history. Then I intended to kill him off in chapter 9. Bastard lived. All of a sudden, I can't tell this guy anything anymore. He's damned pushy. But you know what? He's right. And he's perfect for the job. Not only this job, of pushing my MC forward, of shaping her into the character I love from her later life, but he's a fighter. He won't go away, so I've had to work out a deal with him. He knows when he's going to have to bow out of the series, but he's going to enjoy his time in the spotlight.

Do y'all talk to your characters? Or the tv? Please tell me I'm not alone. Well, alone aside from all the imaginary people living in my head.