Subplots and Sidequests

For some time now I’ve had a writing project stewing on the back burner. It’s a fantasy novel that I hope to make into a series.  Right now, I have the first two chapters complete, plus a basic plot outline, and—most relevant to my topic today—a chunk of the worldbuilding that has to undergird the story if I want to make it a series.  I’ll talk more about this project as it progresses, but that won’t be today; likewise, I’ll talk more on other occasions about worldbuilding and what it entails.

In the meantime, I have a problem. This story, or perhaps series, is trying to expand!  It wants to become a network of related stories, not necessarily in a linear series.  Most likely you’re familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That shared universe encompasses the movie-based exploits of an A-list of superheroes; the television exploits of the B-list and supporting characters; and even some comic books (which is ironic, as it all started as an adaptation of comic books that are explicitly NOT part of the MCU—isn’t multiverse fiction fun?).  It has a dozen or more character threads weaving in and out from each other, and that’s just the main characters.  It’s a grand project, and for the most part it’s been both ambitious and successful—so much so that Hollywood has collectively decided that this is the wave of the future, and every film you see these days seems to be the seeds of a proposed (and far less likely to succeed) shared universe.  My story would very much like to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it grows up—and that’s a problem.

You see, I haven’t earned it. Marvel certainly has; you may call it cheating a bit, but they’ve earned it with decades of “shared universe” comic book stories. Then, they’ve earned it again with the execution of the MCU onscreen.  How did they do it?  I wasn’t around for the beginnings of their comic book empire (though I am old enough to remember when comic books weren’t cool—I was a bit of a comic book nerd back in junior high and high school, at a time when you could very much get beaten up for it).  I do recall the beginning of the MCU, however: they started with just a few central characters—Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and a little later, Thor.  They put the effort into building those characters long before they put them decisively on a team together.  They gave us substance before they tried to capitalize on its existence.  Every so often, an individual story in the MCU may flop, but when it happens, no one looks at the concept as a whole and says “This is stupid”—because they’ve labored to prove that it isn’t stupid.  It works, even if a minor cog in the machine breaks.

marvel

Pictured: Subplots!!!

Chris Brecheen over at Writing About Writing has spoken extensively about “earning it”, so much so that it’s become a bit of a catchphrase. I’m indebted to him for it, because that phrase sums up something I’d been trying to explain to myself for a long time: you can do anything in your writing as long as you earn it.  When Chris says it, he’s usually talking about reusing established tropes, or breaking one of the “rules” of writing.  Here, I’m going to apply it to the expansion of your story—the subplots and sidequests that we all love to create.

(You might take issue with my use of the MCU as an example. “But,” I hear you say, “the MCU is a collection of major plots, not subplots!” Not so, I reply.  The MCU, as well as any incarnation of the Marvel universe, has room for any plot—but they haven’t opted to INCLUDE just any plot.  Right now, and throughout the next foreseeable phase of the production, they do in fact have an overarching plot, that of the Infinity War.  Everything else is supporting that in some way.  Where it goes after that is anybody’s guess—but for now, EVERY individual character movie and EVERY television series is supporting the Infinity War super-plot.  In essence, it’s subplots everywhere.)

I can’t let my project devolve into subplots that expand the universe, because I haven’t yet earned the right for that universe to even exist. I haven’t finished the first book.  I haven’t yet strung the cord on which the subplots must hang.  Nor do I think that a single book will be sufficient to do so; I expect this to be a series, and so I believe I’ll need multiple entries in place, possibly the entire series, before I can expand on this universe.  Marvel was able to do so from the beginning of the MCU because it had a rich history of comic books—these characters and events were known, at least in a large niche market.  They had a foundation in place.  I don’t have that, and I can’t get by with growing multiple parallel stories at once.  I still have to put in the work on the first one.

“But,” I hear you say again (boy, you’re all so vocal today!), “I’m not trying to write a series! I just want to write one book!” My friend, this is just as applicable to you; and for evidence, I turn to the video gaming world.

I’ve recently been playing Fallout 3 (shut up, I’m never up to date in the gaming world).  It’s a great post-apocalyptic game, with a good, suspenseful plot and a well-developed world.  It even benefits some from its history, being the third canonical game in the series; however I’m going to discount that history for the moment, because this game is the only one so far to take place within its particular setting—other games take place in other parts of the former USA.  I’ve discovered, though, that I get sidetracked from the main plot by the sidequests.    It started small—disarm this bomb in Megaton (a major town)!  Excellent!  Did that within minutes of arriving, got a little achievement trophy.  But what now?  You need me to go find and eliminate the source of these mutated giant ants?  O….kayyy….I’ve got time.  Wait, now what? You want me to go run a simulation of the Battle of Anchorage?!  Well, I guess… Oh, look, here’s an entirely new city to explore and liberate in the ruins of Pittsburgh!  Fantastic!  …Wait, what was I doing again?  Main quest? What main quest?

Fallout 3

Pictured: Sidequests!!!

I get distracted, and then I lose motivation, and then the game never gets finished. Fallout 3 has approximately a million sidequests and achievements, and most are interesting enough to keep you going—but you lose sight of the goal.  The same thing can happen in our writing, even if we’re only writing one volume.  We can include so much that we lose focus.  The readers won’t follow along; and we may not even finish writing it.  There are tricks we can use; an outline, for example, will help us stay on track.  We can better reach the goal if we, you know, know what it is and how we plan to get there.  But, mostly, it takes determination to stay on target.  If you know that introducing this new character or setting will send your story off on some wild, unnecessary tangent, then don’t introduce it.  Save it for when you’ve earned that extra story.  For now, keep earning it by keeping your plot on track.

We’re a lot more forgiving of sidequests and subplots in video games. There are a lot of reasons for that; we’ve come to expect them, for one, and games are so expensive that we feel we have to get our money out of them (by racking up a certain number of hours).  Games are less linear, and tend to have in-game features (such as checkpoints and quest markers) to pull us back on track.  Books have none of those, and as such we have to work harder at trimming out the unnecessary and keeping our stories on track and cohesive.

Does that mean we can never have a subplot or sidequest? Absolutely not! There’s still room for my novella about my principal technomage discovering his own powers two decades before the main story begins.  Just, not yet.  I haven’t earned it yet.  On the way to earning it—or any other sidequest or subplot—we should ask ourselves a few questions.  First, does it distract from the main story? A good subplot or sidequest won’t distract the reader from the main story, even while it may seem to put it on hold.  The main story should still be present in the reader’s mind (and usually this will result in a sense of some urgency to get back to it!).  Second, does it support the main story?  It may not be integral, but it should contribute something to the main story.  Third, why should the reader care?  You still have to earn the reader’s interest via good characterization, good plot, and good writing (which we’ll talk more about in later posts).  Just because your characters are “visiting” this subplot from the main plot, doesn’t mean they will be interesting here!

I’ve given examples from television, film, and video games; let me wrap up with a literary example. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth fantasy series is the story of the struggle to liberate the magic-wielding New World (a relatively small continent) from invasion and oppression by the much larger Old World, which is led by a cult that wants to see magic eliminated from the world.  It’s the story of Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell, the leaders of the New World, in their fight against Jagang, a powerful telepath of sorts who leads the Old World.  Most of the books in the series take place in the New World; but right in the middle of the series, it veers off into a “sidequest” (as I’m calling it) into the Old World, when Richard is kidnapped by one of Jagang’s agents.  She takes him to Jagang’s capital, far from anyplace he knows, and he becomes a slave there.  The events of that story, in which he seeks his own liberation and the ideological liberation of those around him, have little to do directly with the fight for the New World.  However, they pass my three tests above: the presence of agents of Jagang is a constant reminder of the main plot; Richard’s actions here will eventually, several books later, serve to undermine Jagang’s power base (thus supporting the main plot); and the characters and their actions are compelling and emotionally intense.  The result is Faith of the Fallen, which is in my opinion the best and most powerful book in the series—and Goodkind earned every bit of it.

Faith of the Fallen

That’s how it’s done, and that’s how you earn your subplots and sidequests. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some earning to do.

You can find Chris Brecheen and Writing About Writing at the link in the text above, or on Facebook.

Timewalkerauthor’s Quick Start Guide to Publication

The other day, I was asked by a family member to help out an acquaintance.  It seems this gentleman is an aspiring author, and he was looking for advice on how to proceed toward publication.  Excellent question!  Although I haven’t made the leap to professional publishing myself as yet, I have worked through the process, and looked into it, and the basics are fairly simple.  I put together a sort of quick-start guide for him, and now I’m posting it here, in slightly modified form.

Two things:  First, this guide is by no means exhaustive or authoritative.  There are people out there who are far more qualified than me to make these recommendations, and you can find any number of blogs that specialize in this sort of advice, with varying degrees of depth.  This is simply a starting point.  Nothing will substitute for your own research, but I appreciate you coming here for a first look!  Second, when I prepared this post, I had very little information as to what the acquaintance for whom I prepared it was looking for, or what he was writing.  Therefore I’ve broadened the scope a bit; this post covers more than just traditional or paid publishing.  As a result, there should be something here for everyone.  Let’s get started!

pencil

Photo borrowed from blog.oxforddictionaries.com

 

 

What type of publishing are you interested in?

“Publishing” is an inclusive term, and doesn’t just mean traditional, print-book, royalty-earning publishing.  There are lots of types and levels to this.  Here are the broad options:

Blogging:  You’ll want a site you can regularly update with new posts as you see fit, which is just yours (not any other contributors unless you choose to have them).  Can be based around an interest, or be general purpose.    Some sites that offer blog hosting for free are:

  • Blogger.com (formerly BlogSpot)—this one is big and versatile and is owned by Google.
  • WordPress.com—I use this one, and you’re looking at it right now. Allows multiple blogs under one email address (most of these do that, but it’s worth noting). WordPress is the granddaddy of blogging sites; it’s big and well-established, (17% of all websites are WordPress sites!) doesn’t often have bugs, has a ton of themes available. Easy to use. WordPress.com is free, and if you ever reach the point where you are doing well and making money on it and want to host it yourself, WordPress.org is the paid service that does that. But really, .com is usually sufficient.
  • LiveJournal.com—getting a bit outdated, but still popular. Has a free and a paid version. One useful feature is it allows video uploading on the free version, which WordPress does not (unless you pay a premium fee).
  • Tumblr.com—Tends to be more visual than literary. Has a comment reply system similar to Reddit. I, for one, found that it isn’t very useful for posting stories and text as opposed to pictures, but you may disagree. Very popular, but a lot of people make fun of it.
  • Blog.com—considered to be a little more professional, but not too much. Tends to have a lot of features that cost premium fees, but otherwise not bad.
  • Weebly.com—comparable to WordPress as far as utility and features. I have a friend who uses it and really likes it. I don’t know much about it personally, though.
  • Penzu.com—I really don’t know anything about this one. Unlimited storage, though, which is very rare.
  • Squarespace.com—Very easy to use, allegedly (haven’t tried it myself). I hear good things, but I don’t know much about it.
  • Svbtle.com—No, that’s not a misspelling, or at least, it’s intentionally misspelled. I don’t know anything about it really, but I hear it’s kind of minimalist.

Blogs don’t generate much money unless you are really successful.  Most platforms have ad services that can monetize your site, but they’ll have rules about how it works.  Just something to look into.

 

Fanfiction or original fiction (without pay):  If you just want to get an audience for your fiction, and aren’t trying to make any money, this may be what you need.  Fanfiction.net is for fanfiction, with a huge variety of categories.  It’s been several years since I used it, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much, though they do have a fairly active administration team.  It’s very hands-off as far as moderation; they might remove something if it’s unrelated to the category it’s posted in, but it’s unlikely they’ll tamper with anything otherwise.  That also means they rarely remove nasty comments, though.  You sort of take what you get.  I’ve found the community to be mostly supportive, though.  When I last used it, their html markup was pretty primitive, but it seems to play well with text from most word processing programs.  If you are writing original fiction, there’s a sister site called fictionpress.com, which works identically to fanfiction.net.

 

Self-publishing:  If you have original fiction (NOT fanfiction) that you want to self-publish, far and away the easiest way to do it is through Amazon.  They have multiple programs for it.  You can publish print books through their createspace.com service (usually these books are print-on-demand, where they are only printed and shipped when someone orders a copy).  Ebooks are through Kindle Direct Publishing at kdp.amazon.com, and are only on the Kindle format; there are plenty of options to check out.  Audiobooks are through their acx.com service.  Truth be told, it’s hard to earn a lot of money through Amazon publishing, at least on Kindle, but it’s a foot in the door, and if it sells well it can also be useful for making the jump to traditional publishing if you choose to.  Other companies that do self-publishing are out there, like xlibris.com and bookbaby.com, but they usually require some cost up front—they’re legitimate enough, but not free.  Bookbaby is especially interesting, in that you can also get single copies for your own library for a fee.  However, with any of these services, I should warn you that one major cost that is probably unavoidable is the fee for an ISBN number.  This is necessary for print publishing if you want to make money, and it runs upwards of $100 for a book.  Most traditional publishers incorporate the cost of the number into their fees, which come out of book sales, so you don’t pay up front; but self-publishing isn’t like that. Your self-publishing company may have a feature for handling the purchase of the number, but you will still be paying the fee.  If you must purchase it separately, without the assistance of a publishing company, you can do so at isbn.org, the website of administering organization Bowker, the only authorized source of ISBNs.  (I have heard that other agencies will sell numbers as well, but it’s a scam, selling invalid numbers.  I have not encountered this personally, however.)

 

Traditional Publishing:  The old-fashioned and time-honored way, in which you publish through a publishing house.  There is way more than I can say here about this, because it’s a deep and well-argued subject; but, here are a few basics.  It’s generally better to start by getting an agent rather than approaching publishers yourself.  First, make your manuscript as good as you think it can be; there are tons of online resources for this (I recommend Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses podcast, which is available for free at the linked website, or for free on iTunes).  Then, get yourself an up-to-date copy of Writer’s Market.  They have a  website (which is where that link will take you), but I’ve found it’s not nearly as easy-to-use or informative as the print book, which comes out every year (and can be ordered from the same site, as well as from various retailers).  It is filled with current listings for agents, publishers, magazines, journals, etc.  Pick out agents that you think may be promising, and then check that agency’s website.  ALWAYS MAKE AN EFFORT TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SUBMISSIONS THAT THEY LIST ON THEIR SITES, and ALWAYS TRY TO CHOOSE AGENTS THAT SELECT THE TYPE OF MATERIAL YOU WRITE.  Agents have a lot of control over what they accept.  Look up some resources on how to write query letters and plot summaries, and send some out (but make sure you do it the way each agent wants it—they’re each a little different).  Proceed from there based on what you hear back.  Don’t get discouraged!  Finding an agent is usually the hardest and lengthiest part of the project—it’s a hurdle I haven’t overcome yet myself.  Once you have one, they will assist you with getting the book revised and edited, and sold to a publisher.

 

Miscellaneous:  In between all these levels of publishing, you’ll find any number of specialty sites, like Wattpad.com for example.  It’s really a matter of what you want.  Also, if you are publishing SHORT fiction, there are many options that are not available to novels.  You can submit unsolicited short stories to many magazines—just google “Magazines that publish [whatever genre, i.e. science fiction, horror, romance, etc.]” and see what comes up, or check the magazine section of Writer’s Market.  Make sure you read the submission guidelines.  You can also submit short work to contests—Writer’s Digest, a companion publication/website to Writer’s Market, keeps a list of these every year, including a few of their own.  Most contests pay a little, some pay a lot, and nearly all of them including some sort of publishing of your story as a part of their prize packages.  Even if contests don’t pay much, contest winners look good on résumés.

 

One last thing to think about:  What software are you using to do your writing?  That’s assuming you’re not writing longhand or on a typewriter.  Those forms of writing are perfectly respectable—I was writing longhand long before I owned a computer—but they’re very difficult to submit for publishing nowadays.  There are a lot of choices for word processing, and they are not all created equal.  Some are better for writers, though most are at least okay.

  • Microsoft Word/Microsoft Office. The current standard for word processing. Word comes as part of Microsoft Office, which can be bought outright for a significant cost (over $100, varies based on which package you want) or can be “rented” via the online Office 365 version, starting at $69.99 a year. I love Word, and prefer it, but expensive is expensive.
  • Apache OpenOffice—free, available online. Very similar to Microsoft Office, and produces documents that are mostly compatible with Office. More streamlined than Office in some ways.
  • LibreOffice—I don’t know a lot about this one, but I hear it’s good, and comparable to OpenOffice or Microsoft Office. Also free and available online.
  • Google Docs—Google is really a package deal these days. Getting a Gmail address gives you all their services for free. Docs is the word processor, and it’s decent, intuitive, and autosaves frequently. Drive is the storage system, a cloud-based free storage. There are also other apps which are comparable to Office’s other features. The only downside is that the Drive storage space is shared by everything, so if you save every email you ever got, you’re going to eat it up quickly.
  • Scrivener—this software was created especially for writers. It costs, and it is definitely NOT intuitive—there’s a learning curve. But it cannot be beat for usefulness. It sorts your outlines, support materials, research, parts of your documents, etc., and has tools to edit, assemble, and export your completed documents. It has so many features, I can’t begin to describe them, and its exported documents are compatible with several other programs. It’s about $50 usually, but frequently goes on sale as low as 50% or 75% off. I really recommend it, but I admit that I haven’t used it a lot yet myself—I haven’t had it long enough to do a lot yet.
  • One more thing: If you have trouble plotting a story, check out storylinecreator.com. Storyline Creator is exactly what it says—a program for creating and plotting the storyline of your material. Based on what you put in, it shows you the progression of every character through the story and how they interact with each other. There are subscription options as low as about three dollars a month, but to just buy the offline version outright is about $22.00 right now.

I’m not getting paid to advocate any of these options, or even asked to do it.  They’re all things I’ve tried on my own, and in the case of Office, Scrivener, and Storyline Creator, I bought them myself, and found them to be useful.  But there are plenty of free options, as I mentioned, and more out there than even I know of, and they work just fine.

 

I hope this is helpful.  Writing is such a satisfying thing when it works out, and getting published—even if it’s for free—is awesome.  Happy writing!

Upcoming Change on the Blog

Announcement Time:  For over a year now, I’ve been posting mostly Doctor Who-related items here.  This project started thanks to Reddit’s /r/Gallifrey subreddit, of which I have since become a moderator.  Often I would browse that site and see posts in which fellow fans would rewatch classic or new series episodes–or sometimes entire seasons–and review them, giving their own thoughts.  I learned a lot about the series, which has been one of my favorites since childhood; and finally, I decided to conduct my own rewatch, and begin posting my own reviews.  I posted them, of course, on /r/Gallifrey; but I also decided to cross-post them here, where I can expand a bit, adding things such as photos and links to streaming sites that carry the episodes.  Such things don’t work well on the subreddit, but they belong here.

It’s grown into quite the project, as I’ve sought to expand into other media (beyond the television series), with the ultimate aim of covering, well, everything–or at least, everything I can get my hands on.  Doctor Who is a franchise that spans more than five decades, with entries in television, the big screen, prose of all types, comics, audio dramas–even stage plays, which are mostly available now as audio recordings.  It’s more than a world; it’s an entire universe, or better yet, a multiverse, with incarnations as diverse as those of the Doctor himself.  I am unashamedly a fan of the series, and cataloguing it this way is a labor of love for me.

However, with the expansion of that project, it’s become clear that it’s more than this blog is set up to handle.  This blog was created several years ago as a place to showcase and discuss my own writing–fiction, that is–in anticipation of eventual publication.  While the publication efforts have been put on hold due to changes in my family situation, they haven’t been abandoned completely; and I still intend this blog to be used for that purpose.  Already I’ve separated its content once, removing posts that relate to family, beliefs, and personal matters, and relocating them to another blog, Thoughts of a Formerly Dead Man.  (To be precise, they haven’t been removed from this blog, but I did stop adding such posts, allocating new posts of that type to the other site.)  Now, it’s time to do the same with Doctor Who.

To that end, I’m announcing a new home for my Doctor Who reviews and discussion.  You can find it at The Time Lord Archives (http://www.timelordarchives.wordpress.com); I will be adding a link to that site to this blog’s link section.  The content I’ve already posted here will remain available here, and has also been exported to the new site, so that everything will be available in one place.  You’ll find that that site has been organized by type of media, a feature I had wanted to implement here, but never fully realized.  For the past week, I’ve been adding new posts to both sites; but effective yesterday, new Doctor Who material will only be added to the new site.

I maintain no illusions about the reach of this blog.  I am a small person doing small things for a small audience; and at this point in my life, I’m fine with that.  Eventually I do hope to devote more time and energy to original material, and to publication; it’s to that end that I’m maintaining this blog after the split.  Still, I do have followers here, and I appreciate all of you; and I owe you openness about my plans.  You can expect that the number of posts here will drop back to the level I was maintaining prior to beginning the Doctor Who project, for now at least.  If you joined this blog BECAUSE of the Doctor Who material, and you want to continue receiving the reviews, PLEASE consider following the new blog!  At the moment, I haven’t done much to publicize it, so there are few (if any) followers over there as yet.  Don’t let that deter you; the content will be the same as it was here, just in a new location.  The fact is, I’ll keep doing this regardless of followers, because it’s a labor of love for me, and because I’d like that site to be a resource available to fans of the series.  But it’s certainly good to know that I have a regular audience, no matter how small.

Thank you to everyone who’s followed along…and, happy reading! ~Timewalkerauthor

Something Better: Or, I’m Not The Writer I Thought I Was

Let’s be honest: Finding something out the hard way sucks.  It’s even more so when the thing you’re discovering is a truth about yourself.  You can tack on another degree of difficulty when the misconception is one you’ve clung to for most of your life.  And that, friends, is where I am this week.

A few days ago, I completed an online writing course. I like to think I know my craft pretty well (and no, Peanut Gallery, that’s NOT the misconception I’m talking about!), and I like to think I don’t need any further training; but this wasn’t just any class.  It was a Masterclass course with James Patterson.  Yes, THAT James Patterson—bestselling author of Along Came A Spider (Alex Cross Series), The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride Series), 1st To Die (Women’s Murder Club Series), and a whole lotta others.  It’s pre-recorded, of course, but that doesn’t mean the class was fire-and-forget on his part, because it came with a nice incentive:  entry into a contest in which Mr. Patterson will select a new author with whom to co-author a novel.

My good friend Cyndera, who also participated in the class and the contest, has posted this article about the lesson she learned from the contest, which, to sum up, is this: she doesn’t write suspense.  Suspense, of course, is James Patterson’s bread-and-butter, and the contest entries were to be within that genre.  It isn’t her thing, though, and that’s fine.  I’ve read her work, and it is definitely more sci-fi and young adult.  Within that area, she’s amazing (and talented in a few others, as well).  Suspense, though, doesn’t come easy for her.

I appreciate the honesty that it took to make that statement. Listen, no one wants to admit that they can’t do something, or put another way, that a certain field is just not for them.  It’s hard to do that, but when we can, we’re better for it.

While I didn’t set out to make this a companion piece to that article, I suspect it’s going to sound that way, because I had a similar moment of acceptance during the class. For me, the genres in question aren’t suspense, though; they’re science-fiction and fantasy.  Speculative fiction, some call them together.  I have, at long last, accepted the idea that I just can’t write in those genres.

It’s not that I lack the tools. I have years and years of reading in those areas under my belt, and you can’t help but pick up a sense of the mechanics.  I understand how elements of fantasy—history, epics, magic systems, and so on—work.  I get how to take scientific principles and the basics of technology and work those things into a story.  I know how to project into the future and get an idea of what might be possible.  No, what I lack is inspiration.  I lack the spark of creativity that is necessary to be truly speculative in my fiction—to come up with something that is, if not new, then new enough.  When I write in those genres, I’m just rehashing old ideas.

It wasn’t easy admitting this. Sci-fi and fantasy are my babies.  I love them like life itself, if I may be a little dramatic.  When I’m reading or watching, I get into those worlds like nothing else.  I’m passionately and unashamedly a nerd and a geek, and it shows (though I hope I’m not the stereotypically overbearing type of nerd).  And my earliest works of fiction were science fiction (well, fanfiction, but you get the idea).  Admitting that I’m not good at it stung more than a little.

I should have seen it coming, though. You can see it here on this blog, if you look in the Fanfiction section.  Megaman Legends: The Traitor is ostensibly a story about cyborgs and androids working to destroy the inhumane system that created them, even while they have to defend it from corrupting influences.  In reality, it’s a story about a broken marriage between two very broken people, who have to figure out what they mean to each other even while they re-establish what it means to be human.  Parasite Eve:  The Other is supposed to continue the story from that novel and game series, in which a human’s mitochondria develop sentience and alternately take over or hybridize with their hosts, creating new powers and lifeforms.  My version is about the ability of loyalty and familial love to overcome evil, both internal and external.  Secretly, my science fiction is actually drama!  (My attempts at pure, short science fiction, such as The Sky Is Burning…well, those are just terrible.)

As it turns out, I’m better with other things. Humor, for one.  I like to think that some of my humorous short stories (New Tricks, Storytime Is Hell, Of Cookies and Comprehension, A Fish Story) are pretty good.  I can do a little romance, though little of that makes it onto this site.  A little drama, as I’ve already said.

And—surprise, surprise—suspense. Surprising no one more than myself, I found that I like to write suspense, and I’m fair at it.  (I won’t say “good”; we’ll wait for the contest results to decide that!).  I like keeping the reader guessing.  I like taking average people and putting them in dangerous situations, then seeing what shakes out.  I like writing about criminals and psychopaths and dangerous people with dangerous intentions (not surprising there, given my background in corrections and mental health care).  I like having a search history that would give a homicide detective pause, because let’s face it, this stuff is fascinating, if darkly so.  I WANT to write thrillers that keep you turning pages.  I do have things to learn, and I need the practice.  But this is something I want to do.

So, we’ll see what happens. My contest submission is a rework of an idea that I  started here on this site a long time ago (and subsequently removed; you’ll find the page with an explanatory note, but the text has been removed), called King of Hearts.  I won’t say much about it now (not sure how any outside work will affect the rules of the contest), but I will keep you posted about any news.  Win or lose, it’s a story I intend to write.

And finally, to everyone who participated in the class and the contest: Good luck!  Everyone has come a long way.  I’m looking forward to see where we all go from here.

Reblog: Conjured in Gold

It’s been a while since I had a guest post on this blog; too long, in my humble opinion.  So, today, I have something different:  a short story by my friend and sometime-contributor, Cyndera.  This story (or rather, partial, as it will be posted in serial format), titled Conjured in Gold, is one to which I am partial, as I was fortunate to have some input into the direction it took during the writing process.  Rather than hosting it here, I’ll be linking to it on Cyndera’s own blog; you can check it out there.  Happy reading!

“You can’t be serious, Arlia. We have talked about this. More than once! You know how rare winged souls are!”

The tall, elderly man, dressed in scarlet-red robes, stood in the middle of the town’s library in front of massive wooden shelves filled with thousands of books and tomes, his voice a mix of disbelief, annoyance and amusement. His grey hair, once so short that it barely covered even the highest tip of his ears, was now touching his shoulders, clearly marking him as an Elder. The hair blended in with his pale complexion but contrasted sharply with is his dark-green eyes, which were now fixed on a young woman standing right in front of him. She wore a silken, white robe with delicate embroidery at the sleeves. Her white hair merged almost completely with the flowing fabric. Her arms crossed over her chest, she glared at the taller figure with bright, blue eyes.

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Finding the Time

Image by Leo Reynolds, flickr.com  Used without permission

Image by Leo Reynolds, flickr.com Used without permission

I like my excuses. They keep things nice and comfortable. It’s so much easier to fire off a glib answer about why I simply can’t write anything right now, than it is to actually sit down and write. It’s such a time-saver! After all, I need that extra time for…well, um…I knew there was something…yeah, let me get back to you.

Another blogger (Carrie Ann Golden over at A Writer And Her Adolescent Muse—check out her blog here) recently posted a user poll on the topic of what your writing is to you. The answers ranged from a gift to a burden. I was not pleased. It’s not that I disagreed with her choices—no, on the contrary, it’s that I agreed with almost all of them. How, I thought to myself, can I narrow it down to a single motivation? And I couldn’t. My writing is a gift (to me anyway—whether my readers would agree is a topic for another time!), a blessing, a hobby, and—someday, hopefully—a means to make money. But then there was that one choice that just didn’t fit me: My writing is a burden. Meaning, in this case, that it’s a compulsion—I HAVE to write. I have the words or the stories inside me, and I have to let them out. Sometimes I may even wish I never had to write, just to be happy and comfortable. That one didn’t register with me…often I do feel compelled to write, but it’s never been painful. Writing is a joy to me; the only painful thing is that I don’t do it enough.

Which brings me back to excuses, and especially time. Any old excuse will do, but some are masterpieces! They’re unassailable, or so it seems on the surface. And the king of the excuses is my old favorite: I just don’t have the time. It sounds so perfect, because who can question it? Unless you have a significant other who lives in your home with you, chances are there’s no one else who can account for every minute of your day. You can spin it any way you want. Look: I work a full-time job. In the morning, I have to get myself and the kids out of the house, then work for eight hours, then alternate between working out and finishing after-school activities, then get home and have dinner, then spend time with the kids, then handle bathtimes, then get them to bed. There’s my day! What’s left?

Excuse complete!

Except, that’s all spin. I have time. I’m writing this post right now, at 9:23 AM, during a slow stretch at work. I have time after the kids go to bed. They go away to their mother every other weekend, giving me a free Saturday afternoon (or better, Saturday morning). The time is there, and yes, of course, sometimes I’m too exhausted, or too busy, but most of the time I can make it work.

So can you. So can all of us.

While I am fond of clichés in my writing (or fond of making fun of them, anyway), there’s one that I find true. It’s often been said that “if you want something badly enough, you’ll make the time for it.” I believe that one from the bottom of my heart (another cliché—I should install a counter for them on the site). I don’t always live it; don’t forget that I’m the one making excuses here. But I know it to be true, and that gives me my goal every time the little voice in my head says “you really should write something”. (That voice is usually Cyndera…everyone needs someone to push them, right?)

So, how about you? What’s your favorite excuse, and how do you defuse it?

Past and Future Tense

In my spare time, I made the decision to try my hand at single fatherhood. Everyone needs a hobby in the evenings, right? The experiment has gone well; thus far no one in my household has killed anyone else, and most days my kids wear clothing that matches (by which I mean that each child’s clothing matches, not that they match each other. I believe that their collective humiliation would collapse the galaxy in on itself if they matched each other). The only casualties in this family-sized POW camp were last year’s goldfish, who sadly did not make it. We suck at raising pets.

In the wake of the divorce that established this situation, however, I found that I had some baggage to deal with. I dealt with it by letting the physical baggage pile up. When it reached the point that navigating the house required a map, a compass, and climbing gear, I had to take action! That is what has occupied the last several days.

I thought I would start small and simple, by sorting out the kiddie clothes and eliminating the outgrown items (and the damages—my kids can destroy a pair of jeans with the skill of an artisan). It took approximately 45 seconds to discover that the word “small” has fled the premises. The final count stands at nineteen (19!!!) garbage bags of clothes, fifteen of which are going away—Goodwill or garbage, I don’t care, it’s leaving. I found items dating back to 2009, which is approximately eternity in kiddie years.

If I may set the jokes aside for a moment: That’s where things got hard. In 2009 my little girl was three years old, and my son was still in diapers. In 2009, my ex-wife was still my wife, and we were raising these children together. In 2009, things were falling apart—but there were still good moments. In 2009 we lost our home and moved in with family, three hundred miles away. That year, and the ones since, held some of the worst memories of my life, but also some of the best.

Finding those old clothes—the pajamas Emma wore when I first started reading bedtime stories to her, the first Hawaiian shirt my son wore at the beach, and so on—was like a long, sometimes aching look into the past. Those years seem frozen to me now, a time when I didn’t know how things were going to turn out, when they could have gone any direction, and we were both exhilarated at the opportunity and terrified at the possibilities. I wouldn’t give up the memories, even while I wish it could have been better.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with writing?

Everything. The short answer is, it has everything to do with writing. It’s a question of motivation versus operation. You see, I’m motivated by that past. The memories of times with my wife and children, of the way things were, of the hopefulness that we had (and still do)—those things fuel my writing. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have done what I do now. Oh, I possessed the technical skills even then; if you want confirmation, go to the Fanfiction section of this site and take a look at some of my older (albeit incomplete) work. The difference is, I hadn’t lived enough to have something to say. My motivation comes from the life I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced.

That’s the motivation; what about the operation? I may write from the past, but I write for the future. I write with an eye toward having my stories outlive me. I’m not so proud as to think that my writing is grand or epic, or even worthy of memory; but I write in an attempt to become those things. My children understand that, in simplistic form; they understand that I write stories, and that they can’t read them now, but that some part of it is based on them, and it will be theirs when they are older. I write for their future as much as my own.

I call those years frozen, but they taught me how to deal with cold times in the future. I just came off of such a time, when my ability to write at all seemed frozen to me. The ideas were there, but they wouldn’t surrender to the page. And, ironically—or perhaps poetically—it was my children who marked the end of that winter. The first thing I was able to put down on paper was the beginning of a new story, one that’s written for them to read now, while they’re young, written with them in mind. It may not go anywhere—my list of unfinished projects is much longer than my list of finished works—but it was a start, and a change, and so I’ll take it. And who knows? Maybe the past will become the future, and turn out well after all.

Ending Strong!

“That’s it?  That’s all?”  Words I never want to hear myself say…but it happens.

After seeing it recommended many, many times, I recently picked up Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash.  Let me get the suspense out of the way right now and recommend the book; if you’re into that genre at all, it’s a classic.  Despite being published in 1992, Mr. Stephenson foresaw some amazing things:  the ubiquity of the internet (the “Metaverse”, in his terminology); the rise of smartphones; augmented reality; and even Google Earth, though of course by a different name.  The book is also a scathing criticism of the ambition found in capitalism and the shortsightedness of government.

The story was fine by me.  The thing that I found troublesome, though—the thing that broke the immersion for me—was the ending, or rather, the lack of one.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; Mr. Stephenson finished all of his plot threads…but then he chopped them off as sharply as if he had borrowed the hero’s trademark katana.  (Side note:  “A katana in a cyberpunk story?” you may say.  To which I say, when your hero’s name is Hiro Protagonist—no joke—you’re already well beyond the boundaries of convention, so do what you like!)  There’s no wrapping up, no scene where the characters get together and hash out what’s taken place.  There’s no denouement, no decline after the action is complete.  The story simply cuts itself off.  The final scene doesn’t even include the protagonist; it centers around the secondary protagonist, the female business partner of the protagonist.  I liked her character, but I wasn’t expecting that ending.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this happen in an otherwise good book.  Dean Koontz’s The Door to December comes to mind, for one.  Even classic literature is not immune; Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, concludes with a sudden switch in the attitudes and circumstances of the main characters, and then simply stops.  It’s as though the pilot of a plane reaches the destination, but can’t figure out how to land the bird.

It’s unfortunate when it happens, because it always seems to be  a book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.  The weak ending, though…it breaks the immersion, there at the end where I want it to be most satisfying.  I realize this is my preference only, but I want the denouement, the falling action, the wrap-up.  I don’t want it to last too long—I want to land the bird—but I do want it to be there.  I want to know that my characters will live, if not happily ever after, at least their version of it.

I followed that pattern in my novel, The Last Shot.  I included a short epilogue, in which the protagonists awaken in the hospital after a very violent night.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I can say that I wanted to make it clear that the right people survived, and the right people didn’t, and that there would be a future for these characters in whom I had just invested a hundred thousand words.  When the story ended, it was well and truly ended.  (And a five-year-old had pizza.  Can’t forget the pizza!)

So, what do you think?  Let’s hear your opinions.  How do you like your endings?  Short and to the point—maybe a little too much to the point—or explanatory and deliberate?  And have you had any experiences with endings that let you down?  Let me know what you think!

Happy Reading!  (And to Neal Stephenson, should you ever see this post:  I have nothing but respect for you, and your book was a learning experience for me.  Regardless of my comments about the ending, great book!)

Winter Stories

As I write these words, I’m sitting in Starbucks (because not only do I use clichés, I sometimes am a cliché), watching the snow fall outside.  It’s a good night for it…I love the sight of the snow drifting down through the light of the streetlamps and the neon of the restaurants and the movie theater that surround this little plaza.  Snow comes early here, and a blanket of cold and white is not unusual at Thanksgiving.  It’s magical, at least until the roads turn to ice and the drifts pile up.

I’ve always loved winter as an idea.  As I get older, I find that I’m not so fond of it when it’s up close and personal; but I still love the concept.  There’s something mysterious about it, something that changes the mindset, that carries us to a different world.  The location may be the same, but the place…ah, now the place is worlds apart.  It’s a hushed, quiet, determined world.  We become different people there, as well—huddled close, more aware of ourselves and each other, more thoughtful.  Winter isn’t just a season, it’s an experience, and it changes us.

I believe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to winter fiction.  It resonates with me, maybe because I grew up in the mountains, where winter is very much alive.  Stories set in the winter seem to be few and far between.  I think that’s because, unlike other seasons, the winter is a force to be dealt with.  It changes your story as much as any character, so much so that it can even become a character.  Yet, for me, those stories, rare though they are, have always made an impression.

I remember, at about the age of ten, reading for the first time Susan Cooper’s book, The Dark Is Rising.  To this day, I consider it one of my favorite books, despite being written for children.  It has other literary merits—it’s a complex story, with good and evil characters who are both defined in their roles and morally ambiguous, a feat which many adult novels can’t accomplish.  It stuck with me for many reasons, but not least was the setting, in the English winter.  I will never forget Will Stanton’s journey from Midwinter Day through the twelve days of Christmas, collecting the Six Signs of the Light, and doing battle with the Black Rider and the forces of the Dark.

The coldest season grew as I grew, passing through other works.  Better known for its film adaptation, Stephen King’s famous horror novel, The Shining, scared me nearly to death as a teenager.  It showed the dark side of winter, and what the cold and the silence and the isolation can do—with a little supernatural help, of course—to the human mind.  Then there is Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and controversial The Road; although its winter was artificial, created by nuclear fallout, it stands as one of the starkest and most wrenching views of the cold that I have ever encountered.  (And of course there’s that scene with the baby—if you’ve read it, you know the one, and if you haven’t, prepare to be scarred.)

I set my own first novel, The Last Shot, in the winter.  I had some personal reasons for doing so; the story draws heavily on some of my own experiences, and some of those can only be placed in the winter.  But that wasn’t my only motivation.  I wanted to put my characters in a grim and desperate situation; and to add some emphasis to that point, I used the weather.  When the story begins, in mid-December, the main character and his family are blissfully unaware of the trouble ahead; and the weather is chilly, but clear.  As the story progresses, and the situation gets worse, the weather also gets colder, and the snow falls. It’s subtle—you wouldn’t notice the connection without pointing it out—but it adds weight to the increasingly tense and dangerous situation of the protagonists.

Or maybe I just like the cold.  Who knows?

Either way, I wanted this novel set in winter.  I think it works for this story.  And I hope that, one day, it will resonate with others as those novels of the past resonated with me.  That’s my goal, and the aim toward which I’m working.  Perhaps it will even resonate with you, reader.

So, what do you think?  Do you like the cold?  Does your heart beat a little quicker when you see snowflakes falling?  And if so, what books and stories—even movies—come to mind when you think of winter?

Happy reading!

Blogging Again!

This will be quick and painless.  Which is fantastic, because there’s been enough pain—of the literal variety—in my life lately.

I’ve been absent lately, and conspicuously so.  It’s not my fault, I swear!  Or maybe it is.  I can admit some responsibility here.  You see, seven long and arduous weeks ago, I received a visit from my new and least favorite companion in life, Crohn’s Disease.  (For more on my adventures with Crohn’s so far, check here and here.)  Through…okay, some fault of my own, I went without my medications for a few weeks, and that resulted in a flareup that I was almost certain would kill me, and I wish that that was an exaggeration.  For almost two months, it was all I could do to drag myself to work, and for a week in the center, even that didn’t happen.  During that time, not a single word was written, short of the paperwork that goes with my day job.  I would work during the day and collapse into bed almost as soon as I got home.

Frankly, you all deserve better than that.  Those of you who take time to read this blog, you deserve more.  But I’m back on my feet now, and here I am; and now, finally, I can get back to business.

In upcoming posts I’ll get back to my topical posts on the writing process, and I’ll fill you in on where I stand with my novel, The Last Shot.  I’ll post some excerpts, and give you an idea of where I’m headed with this project.  And hopefully, with any kind of luck (except the bad kind—enough of that already), I’ll get back to posting with more regularity.

Tonight I had the privilege of sitting in on a webinar hosted by the Washington, DC chapter of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), in which my good friend and fellow writer Cyndera was one of the presenters.  The webinar was part of SLA’s ongoing writing series, and was titled “Blogging for Work, Blogging for Life”.  The presenters were fantastic (and I may say, I was partial to one, but they were all great), and confidently knowledgeable in their fields of interest.  Particularly because I’m a bit on the thickheaded side (I’ve been called a caveman already tonight), I can’t often say that I learned a lot in a short time; but this is one such occasion, and I can’t congratulate the participants enough on a job well done.  If you’re interested in all things writing, blogging, and (of course) library-related, you should check out the SLA at www.dc.sla.org, or on Twitter at @sladc.  I’ve also included the contact information for the presenters of the webinar at the end of this entry; they are worth your time!

While the education I received was great and invaluable, I came away with something else just as urgent:  Motivation.  A key theme of all three presenters was, to borrow a phrase, “Just Do It” (Nike, please don’t sue me, I’ll take good care of it while I use it!).  They were speaking to new and aspiring bloggers, but after a two month hiatus, I feel new myself; and so I’ll take the advice.  Jump in, get started, and say what you need to say.  That’s the plan.

Thanks for coming along!

SLA Webinar presenters:

Marie Kadell (publishing as Marie Michelle Coleman):  Can be reached at www.makemineparanormal.com or on Twitter @M_M_Coleman.  She is the author of Bespoken, book one of the “Daydreamer and Nightangel” series, with book two forthcoming.

Christian I.J. Minter:  Can be reached at www.climbingthestacks.wordpress.com  or on Twitter @LibGirl09.  She is an adult figure skater and an accomplished librarian.

Aileen Marshall:  Our very own Cyndera, she has contributed to this blog, as well as her own.  She is the author of Rivers of the Mind, her first novel, which is in pre-production at this time.  She can be reached at www.cyndera.com or on Twitter @Cyndera.