Back from Futurescapes

I’ve never been to a writers workshop before. Symposiums and conferences, yes, but nothing like Futurescapes. This workshop was designed to bring 45-50 aspiring writers with solid writing skills together and pair them with professionals in the field who could help foster their skills and help them get to “the next level”. That it brought us all together at Sundance Mountain Resort in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah was just a bonus.

When we arrived we were sorted (unfortunately not by magic hat) into two different session groups. We would have two sessions with our A group and two with our B group, spread out over the three days. In my case there was only one other writer that was in both of my groups.

The format of each session was somewhat up to the professional facilitating each group, but the basic structure was that we would each take turns with our chosen selection, getting feedback from each participant and more extensive feedback from the professional.

This format provided some interesting opportunities. My A group met on the first afternoon, and wouldn’t meet again until the following afternoon. My B group met on the morning of the next day, in between the two A group sessions, and then met again on the last morning. I workshopped my opening chapter in my A group and got some good feedback. In some groups the facilitator would ask the participants to revise their work and bring back those revisions for our next session. Ours didn’t; we could bring whatever we wanted for the next session.

That proved advantageous for me. I brought in a different scene from later in the book where I introduce another character. The facilitator immediately declared the second scene should be the starting scene of the novel. I wasn’t sure about that, but I was willing to entertain the idea. But he also said that it didn’t need to be changed, either, even though the first half of the scene was essentially the character’s ruminations on her life. I wasn’t sure about that either.

I still had one more session with my B group, so I took that second scene there, too, though I did revise other aspects of it based on other feedback I received from my A group. I figured a second opinion would be good. My B group confirmed that the second scene was the better scene to start with (and in general), but disagreed that it could keep the info-dump. The facilitator there recommended I find ways to pump up the action and mix the information into that and other scenes as appropriate.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t normally just take every piece of advice as gospel truth. But it is more difficult to argue with professionals, and in most cases their suggestions immediately sparked “ah-ha” moments in my brain. Especially my B facilitator. She was awesome at digging into my world-building and ferreting out errors and lack of depth. Every question set of epiphanic explosions in my mind, and I couldn’t write notes fast enough.

My main hope is that, having seen her do it, I can figure out how to do it for myself in the future. The ideas her ideas sparked have me so darn excited for what my novel could be that I’m having very little problem “killing my darlings” in a work that has remained largely static for over two years.

Another welcome outcome is getting an indication of what I do well, sometimes unintentionally. I had a throw-away character in my first scene, and somehow managed to make both groups fall in love with her in three sentences. Some were quite irritated with me when I told them she doesn’t even show up any more. So it would seem I do better at characterization than I thought I did. Opening lines, apparently, are another strength.

And at least a few in my groups indicated that my description isn’t as barren as I thought–so long as I actually supply some. I did have a problem with people thinking my duel scene took place in the lobby of the concert hall instead of the street outside, even though I’d explicitly said I’d moved the characters outside. I think I needed to describe the street for them before they would fully catch it. My bad–and a lesson learned, hopefully.

It’s a little more difficult to know what I can deduce from what elements people didn’t comment on. As a reader there’s things you don’t mention because they’re solid enough there’s really nothing to say, but there are also times when you don’t say anything because you don’t even know where to begin. But also I noticed that people, in spite of themselves, tend to focus mostly on the things that don’t work. So I’m going to move forward under the conclusion that if they didn’t mention it, it’s at least okay. Besides, I’ve got enough to work on as is.

Another real positive for me was meeting so many serious and solid writers. I have no trouble admitting that the Italian gentleman in my B group is a better writer than I am–even in his second language. He also come across as an open and honest guy, so his feedback was especially meaningful.

But I met a lot of people who I now hope I can lean on for ongoing feedback–and vice versa. The quality of their writing and the accuracy of their feedback during the workshop has earned my trust to where I would gladly work with them again. I hope I was as helpful to them. I admit I didn’t start out as a very effective critic, but thanks to the examples of many in my groups, coupled with the solicited advice of several, I think I got better at it.

It’s the day after now when I’m writing this, and I’m in withdrawal. I miss “My People”. We only really spent two full days together, but it was an intense experience. I had no idea it would affect me this much. I’m feeling a little lost today, and my brain is having difficulty switching back over to work mode. It keeps wanting to explore down the new paths opened up during the workshop.

And even though I’m eager to write, I can’t yet. The workshop was like the super-laser in Rogue One, or perhaps more appropriately the Genesis Device in Star Trek II. The initial shot has hit, but the explosion is still spreading outward from the impact, completely rearranging everything as it goes. My novel is going to change dramatically over the next six months.

And it’s going to be awesome! If I can just figure out how to get out of the way and let it be so.

The End

I’ve finally finished something. After going an entire year last year without finishing anything (over 5000 words, anyway) it really does feel good to be able to say that.

I’ve been working on a novella; a space opera with a “Scarlet Pimpernel” flavor. I initially wanted it to be a novel, but decided that it would make an odd novel the way I’d plotted it, so why not take the first chunk and write it separately? There’s nothing wrong with novellas, after all. Some of my favorite Brandon Sanderson works are novellas.

So still-unnamed-Scarlet-Pimpernel-Space-Opera project came in just under 38,000 words, half-way to a short novel. And it was fun! Oh, sure, it needs some work. A lot of work. But I finished it, and it was fun! I didn’t really plot it out, either, so it proved to be full of surprises.

Like the ending. I had been imagining something a little more concrete, a little more “and this is how they came to work together”. But as I was writing today at lunch I hit a point that just seemed the more honest place to leave it. This turned out not to be the “origins” story I had originally envisioned, but focused more on the arc of the narrator. Fulfilling that arc seemed the right note to end on.

So what next? I don’t know. This one goes in the “trunk” for a little while, at least, until it’s unfamiliar enough to come back for an editorial pass. My Futurescapes Writers Workshop is coming up in exactly two weeks. I need to select the excerpt I intend to workshop so I can get copies made for everyone involved.

But after that I’m not sure. I don’t currently have any stories scratching to be let out. I have a couple of manuscripts I wouldn’t mind working over some more. I have also realized lately that the project I worked on in vain all last year was doomed from the start simply because I’d boxed myself into a storyline that didn’t really work. And I’m beginning to learn that I’m not very patient with my own writing. I want things to move forward far more quickly than they need to sometimes. Other writers get away with several paragraphs of description all the time, but I somehow think I’m being too wordy if I take my eyes off the goal for that long.

This has to change. So perhaps I need to do with that project what I did with this one: identify the pieces in play, and then just write and see where it really goes. I don’t think my problem is that I wasn’t capable of writing that story, I just think I forgot to tell the story I wanted to read. I didn’t enjoy it, and so it became work. I’ve already got a job. Writing needn’t become a chore, too.

Anyway, I don’t know what’s next, frankly. And that doesn’t bother me, at least for the moment. I finished a novella. I intend to take a little time to appreciate that fact.

Writing Update – January 6, 2017

I’ve not written a thing since the last update. I intended to, but first I decided to do some reading. I decided it might be good to go back and work on one of my previous manuscripts some more, and so I started going through the last two novels I wrote, starting with the one I thought was my best work, written two years ago. I immediately saw it could still use some work.

About that time I discovered there is a writers workshop sporting some big names coming soon to a mountaintop near me–and it’s affordable. It’s also by audition only, which also makes things interesting. I’m debating whether I can spare the time and money, but in the meantime I decided to see if my more recent manuscript might be better to submit, as the application requires the first 1500 words of a work you’d like to workshop. So I pulled up my more recent manuscript, “The Merchant Prince” (still the functional, borrowed title), and began reading to see if the opening was any better.

It was. I’m still reading. I’m both encouraged and dismayed by what I’m seeing. I’m encouraged that I’m enjoying it. I’m finding several scenes delight me. I’ve even laughed at some of my own jokes. It’s not only not as bad as I remember, but it’s actually fairly good!

I’m dismayed, however, that I wrote that over a year ago, and I’ve been unable to write anything decent since. I read what I wrote then and have to question whether or not I can even write that way anymore. What happened? Did I over-think things? Did I try to change too much too quickly and only succeed in making my writing both too deliberate and no longer enjoyable? I’ve been about to give up writing for several months now, only to find that I used to be much better than I am now. That hurts.

Granted, I’m reading in the part of the story I never really had a problem with. It’s the last half of the novel I’m not so sure about. The plot gets a little…wonky…for lack of a better term. I’ve had some ideas how to straighten it out, but I’ve been too busy with other projects to work on it. Now I’m thinking I’d better finish reading it with my year’s distance before I do anything that drastic. Perhaps it’s not as wonky as I remember.

It’s a little bizarre reading something you’ve written long enough after you’ve written it that the story is familiar but the details are new and fresh. It’s surreal–and a little Pygmalion-esque–to find myself admiring my own writing. But it’s also encouragement at a time I most need it.

Writing update – July 2015

Because I couldn’t think of anything else to write about today I went back a year and looked at what I was posting this time last July. It turns out I had just finished The Merchant Prince (my fifth novel) and was planning to take some time to revise The Queen’s Colors, the novel I finished before that.

My first thought was discouragement. It’s a year later and all I’ve got to show for it is about 30k words on the next novel I had planned. But I did do a fairly extensive revision of Queen’s Colors, and I’ve since identified another major fix I need to work on. I did a lot of world-building for The Forerunner, my current project, and wrote close to 20k words that I largely threw away when I started over. I also began a side-project, my yet-to-be-named “young adult paranormal romance.” That one quickly went off the rails because I was trying to “pants” it, which I’ve pretty much determined I can’t do anymore. My first two novels were written as I went, which is the reason why the first one stank on ice and why the second is an odd exception. I think that one only succeeded because it was fan-fic, so much of the world-building was done for me and because the plot was rather cliché.

So far to date The Queen’s Colors remains my favorite and, I believe, my best work. The Merchant Prince really needs some significant rework, but it shows promise. As for The Forerunner, I’m trying to out-stubborn it. I’ve felt for some time I’m not up to the challenge of this one yet, but I’m determined to make a go of it anyway. It’s had some magical moments, but for the most part it’s near-drudgery. As in “why am I still trying to be a writer?” drudgery. There are some other things going on in my life that have lent quite heavily to that, but I have to admit to questioning my commitment to being a writer. It’s more habit that’s keeping me going than anything else sometimes.

But to give myself a little credit, the level of complexity has changed for this novel. Yes, Merchant Prince followed three major characters’ points of views, but it was largely one main character with two other characters all involved in different perspectives of the same plot line. Forerunner has two completely separate plot lines with a major character in each, and before long there will be a third minor plot with a major character completely separate from the other two. I’m still setting up things that will run for three novels (at least), as well as building the plot for this novel. It’s challenging, and it’s work. Usually by now in each novel I’ve hit my stride and it begins writing itself. That’s not happening yet with this one. One of the plotlines is starting to show signs of taking off, but that’s not the one I’m on at the moment.

Summertime is always a hard time to write, I think. There are just too many distractions; vacations, kids’ activities, lack of good sleep (allergies are wrecking havoc this year), heat, etc. My motivation is low right now, and likely to take some even more serious hits soon. The next month is going to be a struggle, and my main goal is just to not give up.

How’s that for a motivational post? 😉


Writing update – May 2016

Well, I’m still writing, so I guess we’ll call that a victory. The last couple months have been rough–not because I haven’t had much time to write, but because I’ve had a hard time convincing myself I even want to write. I won’t bore you with the self-pity and details, but the question “to write or not to write” has been very hard to answer. It’s even overflowed to my blog–I missed nearly an entire week in April, and it kinda felt good not to bother.

It’s still a struggle, and I’m still not sure I’m writing because I want to or only because I don’t know what else to do. It still feels like a chore. But there have been some bright spots. Over the weekend I cranked out a scene that was not work, and actually felt…good. Things clicked together in unexpected and interesting ways that turned out better than what I had originally planned. I really like that when it happens. It makes me feel all writerly.

But it’s also going slowly. I haven’t had a 1000-word writing session in…a long time. Five hundred words seems more the norm these days. And that bothers me. Perhaps it only means that the story hasn’t become exciting enough to me yet. But it could mean something else.

It’s also been hard to keep up my regular column over at the Authors’ Think Tank. It’s usually hard enough to feel like I have any advice or support to give when I’m not really a published writer. It’s entirely another to write advice and support columns when you’re a whisker away from giving up writing altogether. There’s a word for that; it starts with an ‘H’ and ends with a ‘E’ and has an ‘YPOCRIT’ in the middle.

But things have been getting better. For some inexplicable reason my writing seems to be connected to my emotional state. I’ve been rather unmotivated toward life in general of late. It happens, and I’m working on it. The funny thing about life is that so many different aspects are so interconnected that you may not even know where the true problem lies. It can also lead to a form of paralysis where you don’t really know where to start to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with life. But lately I’ve had enough and just picked a place to start, and it seems to be helping. Clearly the interconnectedness works in both directions.

Anyway, this is not a desperate cry for sympathy, pity, or reassurance. This is simply a glimpse into the complex, and sometimes dark, workings of the mind of a writer. Those who think that writing is all sunshine and oak desks in beautiful libraries with endless coffee or lemonade have another think coming. It’s work, and as with most jobs, there are days when you just don’t want to get up and go to work, and even when you put on your big-person pants and go anyway it doesn’t automatically mean you love your work. I’d be doing a disservice to anyone considering being a writer if I were to claim it didn’t get that way from time to time.

And perhaps the measure of whether you can call yourself a writer or not is if you can keep writing even when you’re not sure you want to. That or masochism. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Writing Update: March 2016

February turned into a train wreck. Perhaps LTUE this year got me too excited to write. Suddenly all my plans changed. I dropped the fantasy novel I was trying to begin and picked up the YA paranormal fantasy I’ve been toying with. About all I proved there is that I am not a “pantser”. I have to plan my work at least a little. And I learned that writing in first person is a lot harder than I thought.

I also suddenly got all sorts of ideas on how to improve my previous two novels through significant revisions.

So in essence, I got really, really distracted and ended up with very little to show for it. And burned out on writing. Again. It didn’t help that things have become really busy and demanding at work, and even my lunch our has been intermittent. That really makes it hard to get anything going in my writing.

So, it’s time to regroup and try again. Back to my “Forerunner” novel. First chapters are the worst, so I just have to push through and get to the “good stuff”. I’ve got a better idea for it this time, but it still might not be the greatest. And that’s okay. Many writers end up throwing away the first few chapters of their novel and either writing new ones or just starting from a later point. I shouldn’t let myself get stuck on the first chapter.

Another discovery from this last month is that mental/emotional health is important to a writer–which makes sense, because stories come from the mind, not the fingers. Granted, there is a connection between physical health and emotional health, and so that can’t be overlooked, either. But if a lot of emotional stuff is piling up it’s going to be hard to write. I feel like I’m starting to get some things back under control, so I’m hopeful March will go much better on the writing front. There’s sunshine and warm days again, which helps, and opportunities to get out and work in the fresh air, which helps even more. Digging a about half a dozen post holes on Saturday helped improve my mood, oddly enough.

So it’s back to work. Writing is work. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

Writing Update: January 29, 2016

It’s been a rough slog, but I may be nearing the end of my preparations to begin writing my novel! I had intended to finish my pre-writing during my Christmas vacation, but in hindsight I have no idea what I was thinking. Vacations are for doing everything except things that resemble work! And pre-writing, for me, is work.

But January saw a few changes that may prove to make all the difference. For starters, I finally got to planning my characters. I’ve been purposely putting that off until I have more world-building done, as I want my characters to be an outgrowth of my world rather than fitting into preconceived patterns I decided well beforehand. That may have helped. I think I still created the same characters I had been planning, but they do reflect their world a little better this time around, I hope.

I also had some fun with “face selection.” I went through my face file looking for people I felt fit my ideas, and found some interesting faces I hadn’t anticipated. Some of them look even somewhat normal. I chose David Bowie to be the face of my main villain about a week before he died. Chris Martin of Coldplay will be making a significant contribution to my novel. Once I had faces the character profiles fell into place and the character arcs flowed.

And then I bought a cheap laptop to replace the aging thing I’ve been using. It was a hand-me-down, and definitely appreciated, but it was time to let it retire. In copying over my software and files I discovered that the maker of Scrivener has a new “mind mapping” application available, called Scapple. I downloaded a free trial version and decided to use it to create a visual representation of my novel outline. It may not be for everyone, but it’s been a fun, inspiring tool for me. I even wrote a review on it for a writing forum I’m a columnist for. 

I’ve been envisioning this plotline as a trilogy, actually, and I don’t really want to start on book one until I have a basic idea where all three books are going. I may not stick to the plan, but I find I do better when I at least have one to ignore. I finished outlining the second book today, and I actually found myself sighing from the relief of tension–not from the pressure of outlining, but the plotlines I was resolving. I really like how that one came together.

One more book to go, and then I’m going to sit back, read through everything I’ve written so far to ensure it’s all consistent–and add in any new insights or ideas that come from it. Then I’m going to go to Life, The Universe, and Everything writers symposium next month, and when I get back I should be ready to write like the wind!

It’s strange to be so psyched up about this project, considering that a month ago I was nearly ready to give up writing altogether. Strange, but also a big relief. I don’t want to stop writing.

Short stories can be fun!

I recently heard about an upcoming anthology taking entries and decided to give it a try. And since I’m still working (slowly) through a mound of pre-writing for my next novel I figured this might be a fun diversion.

It is! Oh, it is! I haven’t had this much fun writing in months! At first I was afraid that I’d bit off too much of a story for the length limit and was about to toss it and start over, but I decided I may as well write the story the way I’d like to tell it, and then see how much of that I really need. That led to the decision to see just how much exposition I could skip over, and to my delight I think it’s…most of it! I just cut to the chase, giving just enough so that people get the idea, but leaving any real detail for later when or if it becomes necessary.

It’s interesting having to write within the restrictions of the anthology. There’s a particular type of story they’re looking for; specific genre, specific type of main character and/or setting. I thought it might be restrictive, but it’s actually just right–enough to focus the creativity but not restrict the ideas. At least that’s how it seems so far. I’m only about a third of the way in, and I’ve still got a lot of story to squeeze in. But it’s going well, and I’m excited.

I’ve been largely avoiding short stories since my return to writing, a direct reversal of where I was when I wanted to be a writer as a teenager. I’m an adult now, and I guess I associate that with writing novels. I don’t know why; some of the greatest masters are best known for their short stories. But now that I’ve finished three novels in the past four years I guess I don’t feel the need quite so much to prove to myself I can do it, perhaps. And short stories seems like a good place to start shopping myself around. They take less investment, are more easily tailored to the audience, and perhaps even evoke less personal involvement. I guess we’ll see. This is only my second story since I decided to start trying to get published.

Anyway, as I said, I’m having fun. And that counts for a lot right now.

Happy NaNoWriMo!

November is National Novel Writing Month, as many of you probably know. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. That works out to about 1666 words a day; no small undertaking.

I did NaNo back in 2011. We had just moved to a new city and I was in the mood to try something new. I’d heard about NaNo for years and decided to give it a try. My wife supported me in my goal, which is the only way I could have managed it. The only way I could maintain that pace was to to write for an hour during my lunch break, and then for another hour at night after the kids went to bed. It also required I do some catch-up on weekends. I made it, but little else got done that month.Winner!

I’ve not done NaNo since. Not because I don’t think it’s a good idea, but because I’ve had no need to. I’ve been writing more or less constantly since then, finishing the novel I began and completing two others. No, I’ve never written as fast as I did that month, but I’ve also not had to sacrifice everything else, either.

But just because I no longer need NaNo to stay motivated doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a great program. Many people really enjoy the camaradarie and motivation that comes from NaNo. The morale boost of “making it” is unparalleled. It’s good to know you can do hard things. I’ll remain a fan of NaNo for a long time.

Obviously this post comes too late to be an ad for NaNoWriMo or a motivational pep talk for those thinking about doing it. This is really intended to be more of a salute to all those out there who are “in” this year. Good luck, folks! Get that word count! You can do it! Write! Write like the wind! Don’t edit, just put down more words! There’ll be time enough for editing when the month is done. Don’t even bother commenting on this post! I’ll understand! Get out of Facebook and get back to work! (Unless Facebook is your reward for hitting wordcount, in which case enjoy your well-earned break!)

Writing Update: October 2015

I’m between novels, in a manner of speaking. I’m world-building for my next novel, which may be a trilogy of novels. And even though it’s in the same world as the previous two, I’ve decided I don’t really have enough information on this world, and certainly not enough on the part of it where this story takes places.

I tried outlining my stories to intricate detail before and decided it was too much. But I’ve yet to really try pegging the world-building meter. I look at people like Brandon Sanderson, who has a little gauge on his website indicating his progress, and he seems to know how much world-building is enough. I can’t say I yet know, only that I think I’ve been doing too little. I think I need to at least do enough to where I find my world more tightly influencing all aspects of the story. The characters need to have risen from their environment. The plot needs to be uniquely influenced by the setting. I need to know what the rules are, the areas in which I can explore and the areas in which the “law” is firm.

I have no idea what that looks like. I know there is a very real danger of getting lost in world-building. I don’t feel a need to out-Tolkien Tolkien, but I do fear that I might go too far into it and lose interest in ever getting to writing the story. So this is a bit of an experiment for me, and it could be a little dangerous. How deeply do I need to go? I don’t know. I hope I know when I get there.

There are benefits, however. I’ve already seen some new elements come out of nowhere to add new depth and understanding to my story. And oddly enough, it’s come from greater details introducing greater ambiguity. The story has to do with finding yourself in the middle of legend/prophecy, but unlike most stories of that type (of which there are ample), there is plenty of room for doubt–if not from the protagonist, at least from many of the people around him. I’m excited for what possibilities this opens up for developing my protagonist and the other supporting characters.

That alone suggests I’m on the right track to go deeper with my preparations this time around. It’s important to me that I knock this one out of the park as, more than any of the ideas that I began working on a few years ago, this is the one closest to my heart–and the one I’ve been telling myself I’m not good enough to write yet. I’m not sure why I decided it’s time to tackle this one, but if I’m going to do it, I want to give myself every chance of succeeding.

The question, then, is whether all this added preparation comes from that or is merely a way of avoiding having to start something I’m afraid to fail at. Time will tell, I suppose.