Update From the Cave

Hey all you cool cats and kittens … yes, like the rest of the planet I finally watched Tiger King … anyway, hey, it’s a blog post!

I’m still not as productive as I’d like to be, but I did finish the outline for my new book. I’ve put a pin in cranking out the three Altered Egos and spinoff books because I’m so unhappy with the sequel. So this story is something brand new. I don’t even know what I’m calling it yet.

The outline is finished, clocking in at 20 pages – that’s a lot for some people, not nearly enough for others – but sounds about right to me. I try and break the content down around story structure points and cut it up into what I think the chapters are going to look like. I’m not always accurate. I’m also terrible at judging the finished word count. I’d love if this was tight enough to be only 80 or 90 tops. I thought Land of Sky and Blood was going to be just over 100K and it came in at 167K so what do I know …

There are still a few spots in the outline that need attention. I don’t like to leave holes if I can help it. I’ll figure out a fight sequence when I get there, but if somebody has dirt to blackmail another character, say for instance, that’s kind of something I need to know up front.

While all that was getting fleshed out, I submitted a story to the Writers of the Future contest. I won’t give the name of what I wrote in case word gets out and a judge puts two and two together – it’s supposed to be a blind submission – so I don’t accidentally disqualify myself, but I’ll let you know how the whole thing turns out.

It did stoke my fires around short stories again, so that’s something. I’m not much of a short story writer. I have the hardest time coming up with a concept small enough for a short story, but rich enough to be interesting. That said, I think I’ve got another one cooking in the old brain pan. It needs more research. Particularly, YouTube research. I’m not above reading – I mean, come on – but it’s not like I can get a book from a library these days. OK, I can get an ebook I guess, but those rarely work for me because I’d rather read on my phone than a computer screen. I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but there are already too many extra steps now that the barrier of entry is getting pretty steep. So instead, I can read blog posts and articles, but I’ve found that a couple of YouTube videos helps with the background info so I know what questions I need to be asking later. It’s not like I can get a book about what life was like in a Shinto shrine. Or can I?

Hope you’re all happy and healthy!

What I’m Watching: Aside from Tiger King, my wife and I finally started watching the second season of Netflix’s Lost and Space reboot. It’s pretty great. We liked the first season a lot. Well the first third and the last third. The middle kind of dragged because they didn’t know what to do with Parker Posey’s character. They still kind of don’t, but this season has a larger story going on that’s pretty interesting. We’re really digging it so far. Something this show does really well in both seasons is throwing environmental problems at the characters. In fact, that’s most of what the show is and the answers are rarely straightforward. They can’t really kill anyone off because it’s a family show, but it’s still tense seeing what they’re going to put this poor family through next.

What I’m Reading: I just finished the Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I liked it a lot in the beginning. It was an intriguing concept, was kind of literary, and celebrated stories. I mean, what’s not to like? But then … well, then it kind of kept going. Not a lot really happens. January gets angry and upset and scared a lot. By the time the character growth comes, I was pretty much done with the book. My biggest complaint is that early on we’re told that the magic comes with a price. January even says as much. Except, for her it doesn’t. She seems to be the only one who gets to break all the rules and doesn’t suffer a single consequence.

I just started the Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann. I’m only in chapter 3. I mean, I’m still reading the free preview so I can’t really say much about it, but I like the premise and I think I like the characters. I’m always looking for books to fill the Shogun-sized hole in my heart so we’ll see.

Social Distancing — Not so Isolated

I’m glad that others are making the best out of a bad situation and getting a lot of writing done. Seriously, I am. I’m also super jealous. With three small kids at home, my writing has ground pretty much to a halt. As you can imagine, they don’t quite get what Daddy does on his computer. But I’m not really complaining. I’m lamenting. There’s a difference. I may not be making a lot of headway, but I’ve been spending tons of time with my family which is pretty great too 🙂

In the past, I’ve tried to publish a post every Monday — and missed more than a few deadlines — but this is going to be hit or miss for a while. In the rare moments when I DO get a chance to write … like right now … I may choose work over blogging. Sorry blog-buddies! So don’t expect any kind of consistency from me on the ole website. Hey, don’t blame me. Blame the Coronavirus.

If we’re talking actual progress then I think I figured out the problems I had with the second half of my new book. I knew what the protagonists were doing, but not how the antagonist would respond. That’s solved. I hope.Now I just need time and space to get back to the outline to plug all that in.

And I decided I’m growing a quarantine beard. Is this a thing? I haven’t shaved since work told me to stay home and I’m getting pretty bristly.

What I’m Watching: Lots and LOTS of Paw Patrol. I’m usually the one who gets up first with the kids so my wife can sleep. I need less hours than she does and can typically go more sleep-deprived days than she can before a recharge. So the task of keeping the kids alive and quiet often falls to me. We don’t usually use a lot of TV but early morning is the exception. Whenever I need them to be quiet so Mommy can keep sleeping, I just yelp for help!

What I’m Reading: I finished The Sword of Kaigen and … I have mixed feelings. I like it, I think. I like the world but the author doesn’t do much to help ground the reader in it. There’s a specific term that gets used a lot that I have a problem with because I don’t think it fits the rules the author created. I mean, this is just my outside opinion here.

That’s only the start of it. Not to give away a major spoiler, there’s a big battle halfway through the book. The entire second half is dealing with the fallout from said battle. And this is where it completely kicked me out. Again, my opinion here, but I feel like the author set up some promises and then either ignored or broke them all during that latter half. The climax of the book isn’t what the climax of the book should have been about. Or if so, then there wasn’t enough ground work to get there. Don’t give me the ole dangling threads excuse either. I love a few open ended things as much as the next person, but I’m talking central conflict points here. They don’t need to be resolved, but there should be movement. I think I see what the author was trying to do and how it made sense in their head, but it just didn’t work for me. It’s a shame too because I was all on board and then felt like I didn’t fall off, but was pushed.

I’ve also just finished Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch, the fourth Rivers of London/Peter Grant book. It was pretty much what I expected. It was the old friend, the sure thing, I needed after the previous disappointment.

Outlines. Gotta Love ‘Em

Still plugging away at ye old outline. Outlines are funny things. Even us outliners have different definitions of what that term means. I know some people who use a single page and cram the whole thing on there in broad strokes. Another author has an eighty page document that he’ll keep expanding and basically rewrite until that thing is basically the novel itself. For me, mine are around 20 pages. I want those broad strokes, story beats, and memos of important set pieces and dialogue, but I can’t have any holes. I no longer trust myself to figure it out when I get there.

The current thing I’m struggling with is what my antagonist is doing the whole time. This is a heist novel. I’ve got my plucky crew stealing things to ultimately rip off the big bad. OK cool. So what’s Mr. BBEG up to while all that’s going on? He’s not just waiting to be stolen from. Well, I guess he could be, but I need more than that from him. This is another way to raise the stakes. He’s got to show the reader how much worse things are getting so we’re routing for him to get ripped off.

I think I’m cracking it. On the verge or a cusp at least. I’m examining and extrapolating some of the other conditions I’ve introduced in the book around civic unrest to tease out some natural responses that way it makes sense for both the character and the world.

In the mean time, I’ve finally gone back to finish a short story I started way back in August. So that’s pretty exciting.

Also, while getting sucked down a research rabbit hole on YouTube (I was going to hyperlink it but come on, it’s YouTube), I was recommended the following video by everyone’s favorite algorithm. I took one look at the speaker and immediately jumped to conclusions. He did not disappoint. His channel is pretty awesome and I just wanted to share this new gem with everyone. Enjoy!

What I’m Reading: I dropped Red Winter. Speaking of stakes, there weren’t any. To not become an embodiment of your god means your god has to wait another ten years to try again even though it’s been a hundred years since your god has walked the earth last time and we see no reason why this is either a good or a bad thing … OK. Do it. Don’t do it. I don’t care.

I ended up picking up The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang instead. I liked the sample so much I had to enroll in a free trial for Kindle Unlimited to keep reading. I actually did that! If that’s not an indication of praise, I don’t know what is. So far, I really like the book. My only hangup is the jargon. Yes, SFF has jargon, but this feels … superfluous, I guess.

What I’m Watching: Well, hope to be watching Altered Carbon. Season 2 dropped a couple of weeks ago and I’m hoping to sink my teeth into that real soon.

Montage

I’m breaking ground on the new outline. This one is a little more structurally complex, because I’m writing a heist novel! I’m super excited about it, hence the exclamation mark in the previous sentence. So of course, I immediately ran into a problem.

In most heist movies, we have an early montage where the characters are planning and prepping. It’s fun, shows off the world, and let’s time pass to the good stuff. I was wasting reams of digital paper trying to figure out how to translate this into prose. See, I thought it would be fun to have this central conversation and then cut away to some of the other little stuff. Like a montage, but not.

Here’s the thing, though, montages don’t work in prose. A book is already kind of like a montage as it picks and chooses what to show you, but it’s also slower than a montage because for every scene you have to get the reader into it and out of it again. The closest a montage can look in prose would be something like this:

  • The characters talk about the job.
  • Character A is soldering circuit boards.
  • Character B is throwing axes at a target.
  • The villain is locking the door on his vault.
  • Character C is trying on a silly costume with Character D and says “This’ll never work.”
  • Character A can’t get two wires together so she uses gum as a connector.
  • Etc.

That’s awful. No one would ever want to read that. It’s a list and takes you completely out of the story. Montages are visual tricks. More than that, they’re editing tricks, to show just enough information to allow the passage of time. In a book, you can just skip to the next scene.

Once I understood that, it didn’t fully solve the problem for me. I still have to have my characters plan and prep for the big score, but it needs to be interesting so the pace isn’t bogged down.

I know, who worries about pace in an outline. I do! Well, I try to. It’s one less thing to fix in post.

So that’s where I’m at. I think I’ve got a better handle of how to present the information. Now, it’s a matter of figuring out the sequence of events. Don’t worry, there will be definite skipping ahead. We don’t need to see how my one character uncovers a secret to exploit for leverage, we just need to know that he has it. But I can’t remove all that prep stuff because in a heist, that’s half the fun.

Oh and obligatory …

What I’m Reading: I finished The White Road and had a couple of false starts. Both The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo and To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks, I just couldn’t get into them. I wasn’t pulled in and interested by TNT and TBtDG did a poor job of setting place and scene. It was too lean to the point where I wasn’t engaged at all because I could barely visualize what was going on. Reading time is precious these days, so I can’t devote time and energy to something I don’t enjoy – Gasp! I know what agents must feel like! I did find something, though, Red Winter by Annette Marie about a girl who’ll become a god? An avatar of a god? I’m not sure, I’m only on page 45. I don’t love it. I’d say I’m mildly interested which could be a result of my desperation winning out so I’m settling, so we’ll see.

What I’m Watching: Star Trek: Picard. I initially wasn’t on board for this show. I thought there was no way they could do justice to a character who’ll live better in my nostalgia. Picard is my captain. So I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the first episode. Five episodes later and I realized Past Dan, Wary Dan, was right. This show isn’t about Picard at all. How could it be? Sir Patrick Stewart is 79 years old! You could honestly remove him from the show and things would happen exactly as they are in the same, gruelingly boring pace. The big reveal last episode, by the way, is something we’ve known since episode one … so yeah. There is no reason for Picard to even be in this series other than for member berries. He can’t be the only optimist left in the universe.

Phases of a Book

I’d say I’m just about done with the brainstorming phase of my new book. To give you some perspective, when I write a novel, it usually goes down something like this.

Brainstorming Phase: This is usually about a month. Sometimes longer. I’m always jotting random ideas down and doing the occasional research about something, but this phase is the hardcore focus of all my mental energy on something new. This is also where I do my more targeted researching.

Structure Phase: Once I’ve got a pretty good idea of the world and what I want to say, I make a one page document for pacing. This is really the narrative framework in which the entire thing hangs. I identify the plot points, the hook, changes in narrative phases, etc. It’s not super robust, but I need to know how the story unfolds and where I need to fill getting from A to B. This takes maybe a week or a week and a half. Often times, I go back and do some final fiddling with brainstorming and concurrent research as I build it out.

Outlining Phase: I then turn that one page document into a 16-20 page outline depending on the scope of the novel. I try and break it down into what I think will be the chapters with bullet points telling me what’s going to happen in each one. I also include notes to myself, lines of dialog I’ve already written, and all the must haves and put them where they need to go. It’ll take me maybe two to three weeks to get this whole thing together.

I try not to leave anything blank. I’ll be vague at times in a bullet like “hero gets in a fight and the villain gets away” and when I get there in the manuscript, I’ll have a better idea of what that fight will be, but I don’t like to have an entire protochapter look like:

  • They storm the base
  • big fight ensues
  • they’re about to catch the bad guy, but the tables are turned.

And that’s it. No further details. No reminder of what’s at stake or notes about development. I’ve found that I ALWAYS run into trouble when it’s that vague. Looking at you cough Partners in Crime cough. So I need to iron that out which is why it takes me extra time to get all of that in order.

Writing Phase: The meat and potatoes. It takes me anywhere from 4-5 months to write a first draft. I go through the ole outline and get my words in for the day. Rinse and Repeat. You know how this part works.

Waiting Phase: Another couple months where I distract myself with something else to let the dust settle and the ideas gel from the first draft.

Editing Phase: Another 4+ months of grueling fine tuning and rewriting to make that pile of words into something that someone would actually want to read.

So there you have it. I’m just about finished brainstorming so it’ll be soon onto the structure phase. I’ve written eight novels by now and this is the process I’ve developed for myself. I would like to do more works concurrently: edit one work while brainstorming another, etc. and I’ve done that to some extent, but seeing as I’m not a full time writer, I only have so much time to devote to a project so I’m going laser focused again. Onward to novel number nine!

What I’m Reading: (see, told you I’d bring these back …) Just finished Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red about a, I suppose its technically a cyborg, who calls itself Murderbot and loves serialized media. It was just the right length for the writing style. A strong voice but also sparse on the details which makes sense since its in first person or first bot or whatever … which I imagine would get old for an entire novel. That said, I’m definitely going to read a followup in the near future.

As that was so short, I started John Connolly’s The White Road. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, I’ve really come around on Connolly. I didn’t care for his first novel, but that last two were pretty great. And you want to talk about voice? They tell you as writer that you should read wide and look for lessons about craft in other peoples’ work. Whether its a duck flying over a salt marsh or the description of a crime scene, imagery in Connolly’s books is just awesome. I don’t mean super cool, I mean awe-inspiring. I’m definitely taking notes.

What I’m Watching: The Imagineering Story on Disney +. Love or loathe Disney, this documentary series is still incredible. To see how they pulled off some engineering marvels is just fascinating. It also serves as a great lesson for anyone interested in customer service and really the value of a product. You can see where they’ve designed a complete user experience and where they were just phoning it in. Each episode is only an hour, but my wife and I keep pausing it to comment and marvel so it takes us twice as long to get through them.

Full Stop

I write chronologically by nature. I always start at the beginning and work my way towards to the end. It makes me really uncomfortable to write scenes out of order. I don’t like going into a situation without knowing all the subtle nuances and decisions that got my characters to that point, so whatever I end up writing feels hollow to me. Even those big, shiny set pieces I know are going to be in there and I’m super excited about, I still can’t write them out of order. I’ll get there when I get there.

The only way I can write unconnected scenes is once I’ve finished the manuscript. With the story told, it’s much easier for me to see, “Oh, I’m missing this scene here,” or whatever, and then go back and write it. Doing it that way removes my earlier hang ups and it’s not much of a problem.

I bring all of this up because I ran into a brick wall in my current manuscript. There’s a particular battle that I’ve known about since the outlining phase. A small force has to win against insurmountable odds. I knew it was coming. I knew I should prepare for it. But Past Dan decided I’ll figure it out when I get there.

Past Dan is an idiot.

I have no idea what to do. It’s not exactly writer’s block because I know what needs to happen and the big turning points in the sequence. What I don’t know is how to bring those about in a logical manner. I mean, this rag tag group of heroes has to win, yes, but win in a believable way.

The diligent writer in me knows I won’t be getting my words in for the day while I sit and noodle this one out. That Dan wants me to pick a point after the battle and just continue since I know how it’s going to end anyway. But I just can’t. It feels wrong. I guess I can massage in continuity edits later, but it’s hard to get going. Unless I figure this out soon, I may not have a choice.

It’ll be an interesting exercise for me for sure if I just breeze past this pivotal scene. I know other writers who don’t have the reservations that I do and can write whatever scene they need in whatever order that strikes them. Not me, friends.

So maybe you can help me out. Besides a small group winning against a large one, how does said small group win if they’ve already given up the high ground? Seems impossible, right?

Now I’m mad at Past Dan for two reasons.

  1. Why didn’t he figure this out earlier?
  2. I control the narrative. Why are we even in this mess?

Oh well. Instead of my daily word count, I think it’s off to read some history forums and learn as much as I can about underdog battles. If any of you have any insight or advice, Present Dan is much more receptive than Past Dan. He’s all ears.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Ever notice how authors know so many random things about a lot of stuff? That’s because in order to create conceivable worlds, we need to know how those worlds work. That’s where the whole an author only writes 10 percent of the iceberg thing comes from. You need to know so much on the back end in order to write a realistic setting. Learning all that can inform other stories down the line and even if it doesn’t, it makes for a bunch of random facts for the back pocket.

For instance, did you know that after the passing of the Metropolitan Police act in 1829, constables’ uniforms had stiff collars to avoid strangulation as they were definitely not a welcome sight around the city? Because thanks my research for The Red Door, I do.

To help put this in perspective, you’ve probably heard stories about getting lost in Wikipedia or falling down rabbit holes on the internet. One search leads to another leads to another and so on …

Story creation works that way too. Let me give you an example.

I’ve talked a little about this before, but my new story all started because I wanted to do something with a deep sea diver. OK, when did they do hardhat diving with a breath line? Well, the Navy still used the Mark V helmet up through WWII (I had to learn that …).

Well, I don’t want to use that time period, but I like the idea of a soldier, so how about after WWI?

OK. It ended in 1918.

Well, I don’t want it to be RIGHT after, so let’s push it back to 1919.

Great. Where?

Well, my protagonist has seen enough battle. He wants to settle somewhere idyllic for a while. Oh and there needs to be water.

How about the Mediterranean Sea?

That sounds good. Lots of history there. I can base him in Greece.

What was Greece’s role in WWI? How would the react to an American fisherman living there now? If he’s a diver, he’ll need a tender, probably a local, so was this guy in WWI as well? Also, in 1919, Greece was gearing up to fight another war against he Turks and his tender would be involved with national sympathies and …

See what I mean? You make a couple of decisions and the threads just start appearing. Do I need to explain all of this in my own work then? Absolutely no, but I need to understand the interplay and relationships because its all going to inform what I write.

It’s been fun doing the research. I was just reading something about sunken treasure ships which lead me to Egyptian ports which lead me to trade routes and the list goes on.

I may have directed this journey, but remember it all started with me wanting to do something with deep sea diving and it spun out from there.

To me, that’s what makes storytelling so much fun. Yeah, it’s a lot of work putting all these pieces together, but change just one facet and the entire story changes. That’s why, the last time I tried this, I got from the Marianas Trench to spaceships.

Flat Stanley

While working on the outline for “Of the Blood” (working title for my new fantasy book), I ran into a character problem. I had this POV character that I needed. Well, I wanted her to exist too. I realized I’d been counting on her more for what she represented to the story and not actually for who she was. She had all the warning signs of being a flat character, but it was worse because I realized I knew nothing about her. She wasn’t even an actual character yet.

This gave me pause. There are plenty more detailed outliners that myself, but I can’t write anything without knowing where I’m going. Or in this case, who I’m writing about. So, I needed to find a way to make her more than a character serving the plot.

How to do it?

Talk to a hundred writers and you’ll get a hundred answers. For me, I first looked at her world. Who is she in relation to her family? Her hierarchy in the clan?

This book has a pseudo matriarchal society at its core so mothers and their daughters are pretty important. Well, my character was the fifth daughter, so how important is she really? Close to power, but not really holding any. I can run with that.

Then it was asking myself what does she want? I couldn’t answer the grander question of what is her purpose in relation to overcoming personal flaw and all that, but how about on a smaller scale. Okay, she’s the fifth daughter of a royal house, what does somebody do with that?

Respect. I’m running with the theme of her wanting the respect of those around her. She feels like she has to live up to this shadow and is going out of her way to do it.

It’s a little cliché, but the fun part about being a writer is recognizing that. She wants respect, but me, Writer Dan, knows she needs something else. I’m not entirely sure what that is yet, but I know it’ll tie into her purpose. It’s the thing that’ll make her feel whole.

So the beginning of her arc will be chasing artificial situations and trying too hard to win the respect of others. That’s also something I can work with. It gives me a nice foundation for her character to build from. As the story progresses, I’ll start massaging that into better growth.

Coming up with that was about an afternoon’s worth of thoughtful reflection. Just writing down some questions and answers and seeing what made sense. I wasn’t focusing on the plot or anything else to do with the book. I was just trying to figure out who was this person I was creating in a realistic fashion. Doing it that way is a much more organic approach to the eventual conflicts.

There’s still a long road to go, but for now, though, it’s a heck of a lot better than a character whose only function is serving plot POV.

Passion

As any good writer knows, you can’t wait for inspiration to write. Not if you want to write for a living. It’s a muscle that needs to be trained. You can write without the muse and can still end up writing good material. There are better posts than this one all about art versus the craft of writing, but I can condense it all down for you. Spoiler alert, it usually boils down to discipline.

No. For today, I want to talk about Inspiration’s sister, passion.

Yes, it’s possible to write without passion, but your readers will feel it. Passion for what you’re working on infuses every word on the page. It’s what keeps that excitement and energy going through the marathon slog from that first blank page to writing “The End” thousands upon thousands of words later.

I’m not a full time writer. I have a day job I need to balance with my (hopefully) burgeoning writing career. So that means, I can only really work on one project at a time. I’m trying to be better about that, though. The best I can do right now is while I wait for edits on one book, I’m doing the research, brainstorming, and worldbuilding for the next one so by the time I’m completely finished Book A, I’m all set for Book B.

I had the kernel of an idea: scientists discover a beacon from the deep and go down to investigate. I worked and worked on it until it became this story about a crashed spaceship and extraterrestrial cover ups. Hence, my last post about the research I was doing. But then something happened. The story became more about the government conspiracy than what originally got me excited about the project in the first place: exploring the deep, dark ocean.

Ideas change. Concepts evolve as you work on them. Your end result rarely looks like what you originally thought it would be. These things tend to happen. But somewhere along the way, I’d completely lost the passion I once held for the project. It started feeling like something I had to do and not something I wanted to do. I’m not going to lie, I actually got pretty depressed about it.

Here I’d spent all this time working on an outline and characters and concept for something that was going to make me miserable to work on it. Or I could throw it all away and start fresh, wasting all of that development time making me miserable for squandering resources.

It was a hard decision, but ultimately, I decided to start something new. Well, new-ish. I’ve been cooking up a fantasy setting for quite some time and while I was waiting for reader feedback from my last novel, I wrote a “practice” short story in that world to test the worldbuilding waters so to speak. Turns out I love it. So much so, that I’m working on selling that piece and I now want write an entire novel in that setting.

I wanted someone to tell me it was okay to abandon the other work and switch to something else. Once I made that decision for myself, though, I knew it was the right one. I’m not one to give up or chase flights of fancy. I like to think I have pretty good work ethic – hence why I was feeling bad about the situation. But this has already proven to be the right decision.

I have passion for this new story. My initial concept for it morphed and changed and grew from that tiny kernel just the like the other one did, but I didn’t lose the spark this time. I’m excited to get started. Excited to work on these characters. Excited to see this world. It’s my most ambitious novel yet and I should be quaking in my boots. Honestly, the spaceship one might be easier. But go big or go home, right?

That’s not to say that all the research and work I’ve done on the other story is totally wasted. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to it one day and resurrect it in some form or another. Or maybe I’ll pick at its corpse for the stuff I still like. I really do plan on writing a novel about a discovery at the bottom of the ocean. But for right now, it looks like I’ll be writing something else.

So while you can’t wait for inspiration to strike, you can at least lean into the work you enjoy doing. Your enthusiasm will help carry you through. If you’re not excited about the book, why would your readers be?