Dead Writers

This summer, two of my favorite authors died: Ian M. Banks and Elmore Leonard.

I came to Leonard through the movie Get Shorty, based on his book of the same name. Leonard was a master of dialogue, writing in a clean style that left no confusion over which character was speaking. He also advocated simple dialogue tags like “he said” or “she said ” versus more involved tags like “he declared “or “she exclaimed.” It’s a lesson I took to heart, though I admit I can’t resist occasionally embellishing a tag if I think it fits. Leonard  also wrote about characters on the outside of society: mobsters, con artists, hit men and the like. Even his lawmen had a rebellious edge to them, as anyone who’s seen the TV series Justified (based on a character in the story “Fire in the Hole”) can tell you. In an Elmore Leonard story, you are guaranteed an interesting character. I recommend reading Get Shorty to get a sense of Leonard’s style.

Ian M. Banks wrote the quintessential philosophical space-opera. His stories involved a utopia called “The Culture” whose citizens were free to pursue whatever interested them while benevolent AIs(Artificial Intelligences) took care of their needs. Of course, a perfect society would make for a boring tale, so it’s not quite that simple. Banks was a master of working on a big scale. Jaw-Dropping, Mind-Boggling, Epic scales that somehow never overshadowed his story’s characters or theme. From Banks, I have tried to emulate his story’s balance between the big idea and the human-level minutiae that make a story meaningful rather than a technology fantasy with tour guides masquerading as characters. I recommend Bank’s Player of Games as the best introduction to the Culture novels.

Now that these two authors are gone, I wonder which of my writing heroes will be next to fall, and who will step in to take their place.

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Happy NaNoWriMo!

For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you the best of luck, but for me November is the month I finish my novel revisions. I’ve groused about finishing before, and sworn that I would really, really finish it, and now I have run out of excuses. We’re settled into the new house, the kids are back in school, and Black Coffee Fiction Volume Two has been published (Get your copy today!).

This week, I’ve made my edits on chapters one through eight. I’ll need to pick up the pace so I have time to smooth out the continuity errors that are sure to crop up.  Let’s do the math:  if I want to be done with line-edits by November 20, and I have 46 chapters left, I need to finish on average 2.3 chapters a day. That leaves me with 10 days to smooth out continuity errors and give the result a final read-through. Then it’s off to beta-readers for comments.

It looks manageable, a hike rather than a slog. I will keep you all informed.

 

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Ego Adjustment

For those of you who still reading this blog after my summer hiatus, thank you! Now that the kids are back in school, I can devote more writing time towards maintaining this blog.

TwoDumbbells

Image by GeorgeStepanek via Wikimedia Commons

I used to read books on the writer’s craft. I’ve come to the point where reading about how others approach writing isn’t helping me as much as putting in the time writing manuscripts. I think I’ve taken to heart as many lessons as I can and I now have to figure out how best to use the tools and techniques I’ve read about.

It makes me wonder if I’ve turned some corner in my writing. Am I a real professional writer now? When I want to call out another writer for doing something wrong, am I just fooling myself that I know better?

From a journal entry two years ago:

On Friday, I went into the weight room at the local YMCA, and discovered once again that I am not the strongest man in the world. Not even the strongest man in the Y. This wasn’t a great surprise to me, but I felt it was a good reminder that no matter how hard I work out, there’s always going to be someone stronger. Then again, I wasn’t intimidated by the other meatheads either. I have enough experience in lifting weights to know that my technique was solid and that I packed in the most efficient workout possible in 45 minutes.

I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor lately, and her work reminds me that I still have a long way to go as a writer. But I notice she focused her attention on story elements that I would have skipped. The things she found interesting I found belabored. I guess she tells her stories her way, I tell my stories my way.

I’m still not the biggest meathead in the gym; I’m humbled every time by men and women in that can complete the workouts faster, lift heavier weights, or make the things I struggle with look easy. Likewise, for all the effort and improvement I’ve made in my writing over the years, my short list of publication credits isn’t impressing anyone. Still, I’m creating, publishing, and convincing people my stories are worth their time and money. I may never be a Flannery O’Connor, but I’m no amateur.

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Three Setbacks in Indie Publishing

Colleen and I first published our Black Coffee Fiction collection on Amazon.com. We opted to go with the Kindle Select Program that would give us a higher royalty rate in exchange for exclusive distribution rights on the e-book for 90 days.

First Setback: Exclusivity agreement restricted potential sales.

It sounded like a great idea at the time, but I later learned that while most of our fans were willing to buy from Amazon, we lost a few e-book sales because some preferred to buy from Barnes and Noble or iTunes. Our exclusivity agreement left us unable to satisfy those fans. I compounded the problem by not checking to see if the Kindle Select status automatically renewed. It did, and I had to wait an additional 90 days to get our distribution rights back. Perhaps the extra royalties we made through Amazon outweighed the potential lost sales, but I’m interested in growing readership more than making money with our first book.

Second Setback: Not owning a Mac

While many retailers allow independent authors to upload and sell their books through their online catalogs, iTunes will only allow you to upload your book using iTunes Producer which is only available on a Mac. Not a PC or iPad, mind, it has to be Mac OS X or nothing. It doesn’t matter if you have your epub files otherwise correctly formatted, iTunes Producer is the barrier to entry. If you do not own a Mac, have access to a Mac, or unwilling to purchase one, your only option is to use an aggregator service to get your book into iTunes. Not having access to a Mac, and not willing to drop $1000 on a device for the sole purpose of uploading epubs, I went to Smashwords.com.

Third Setback: using aggregators that cannot support anthologies

Smashwords is an indie publishing site that gives authors a single point of entry to Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, and most importantly, iTunes catalogs. In exchange they take a commission on each sale. The uploading went swimmingly well, as I already had my epub correctly formatted. I set the price, the distribution channels, and was ready to publish. Then I noticed something strange: my name showed up as an author, but there wasn’t any place to put in Colleen’s.

It turns out that for some arcane reason, Smashwords cannot handle multiple authors for a single book. Their customer support offered a work-around where we could use a collective name or alias to list the book under, and list each author separately in the book’s description. While a reader in theory could search for our book by author name, it wasn’t guaranteed to work. To be certain, they would have to know either the book title or our collective alias. This was a non-starter in my mind. The problem would rear its head again later this year when we will be doing another Black Coffee Fiction anthology with three authors. This would require yet another alias and create more confusion.

“Why yes you can find all three volumes of our work online. Just look us up on Amazon using our real names, but remember on iTunes we’re known as BCF Collaborators, Black Coffee Fanatics, or Russian Spambot Society depending on which book you are interested in.”

In short, Smashwords works fine for the single author, but not for collaborators. Why am I paying them a commission again?

Lessons Learned

I believe that next time, I will upload our book directly to each bookseller’s website, and either find a friend that has a Mac for an iTunes upload or forgo that channel altogether. And if I meet the woman with the iPad, I’ll tell her to just download the Kindle or Nook app and buy from Amazon or Barnes and Noble; Apple doesn’t want my business.

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Why I’ll Never Run Out of Ideas

In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T. Davies writes about the fear of running out of ideas. When Davies began writing screenplays for the BBC, he realized that he was turning out stories faster than he was getting new ideas. He put the fear in the back of his mind, parsing out his story ideas stockpiled over the years, script by script, until one night his fear was realized: a script due with no story idea.  He’s blocked. No ideas for story start, let alone the middle or end. He works through the long night, fighting, and then there’s a breakthrough — the idea comes to him. After this episode, he realizes he will always have ideas; several more stories pop into his head to replenish his stockpile even as he writes more scripts. The fear of running out of ideas is a fear of success, and it’s a false fear.

When I’m stuck for an idea, I take a random piece of conversation and mine it for copper, silver, and gold. When I’m annoyed by a loud, boisterous, indignant busybody, I feel blessed to be sitting next to such a story generator. This happened last week at my daughter’s swim practice. Here’s the line I wrote down:

“I went up to the mom and told her,’ I don’t care if you listen to me, but you should know that if your daughter passes the school bus and kills someone, you will be held liable.’ Because someone has to do something about this girl.” — Indignant father overheard at swim practice

To generate story ideas, I play a little game of word association coupled with directed thinking.  Here’s my story generated list:

  • Obvious response (negative): daughter kills someone while passing bus, mom held liable.
  • Obvious response (positive): mom prevents daughter from passing bus. End of story.
  • One hundred eighty degree response (negative): daughter kills someone while passing, indignant father held liable.
  • One hundred eighty degree response (positive): daughter about to pass bus, but mother steps in front of kids to stop daughter.
  • Ninety degree response: indignant father plows his own car into daughter’s car to stop her from crossing or passing the bus.
  • Two hundred seventy degree response: daughter visits indignant father and chews him out for his driving errors (his may be more or less serious than hers).
  • Odd response: The mother is the bus driver.
  • Ironic response#1: daughter is killed by someone else while passing the bus, or is killed by a car passing another school bus.
  • Ironic response #2: indignant father is killed by daughter or the mother is killed by daughter’s reckless driving.
  • Ironic response #3: indignant father is run over by the bus. (This works for the daughter too).
  • Charlie Brown response: father arrested or sued for documenting daughter’s driving. This can be stalking, false imprisonment, impersonating a police officer, etc.…
  • Funny response #1: The indignant father’s own daughter is mistaken for the reckless driver. Her picture is plastered all over town and on social media and leads to neighborhood vigilante group. (“Like us” to stop reckless teens!)
  • Funny response #2: kids pelt daughter’s car with lunch and other food items as daughter attempts to pass. Kids call themselves The Rotten Tomato Safety Club
  • Hallmark Movie of the Week Response: daughter has life-changing epiphany after she nearly kills a kid while passing the bus.
  • Cynical response: daughter kills a kid, gets off on a technicality or for a paltry sum of money.
  • Deus Ex Machima response: a meteor crashes and hits the daughter’s car as it is about to pass the bus.
  • Not so funny response: daughter is actively trying to kill a kid.
  • Stephen King response #1: daughter is a prognosticator and always knows that she won’t hit anyone or get a ticket. However, she does know when everyone on the block will die.
  • Stephen King response #2:  daughter can see the angel of death hovering around the bus stop, but disappears when she runs through it. She’s actually saving the children, but no one believes her.
  •  Random word, from a random page, from a random book response – “praiseworthy:” indignant father rushes out to save a child from daughter barreling past the bus. Daughter slams into tree while swerving to avoid the child and indignant father. Indignant father then rushes to save the daughter. He then realizes that the car’s brakes have failed, and forgives all.

Varied word associations like this generate many ideas, and can lead to some interesting plots. This week, I will choose one and write a story which will be posted on Black Coffee Fiction next Friday. Stay tuned, and see what happens!

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Author’s Notes: The Flambeau 50

The story behind the story…

This week I posted a story called the Flambeau 50 to Black Coffee Fiction. The story started out as a writing exercise, and grew on me as I came across it again and again while mining my files for Black Coffee Fiction submissions. The problem was that it didn’t go anywhere, so I repeatedly passed it by. Then a few weeks ago, a story idea popped into my head. Somewhere in the process of refreshing my mind every few weeks with that story kernel, I finally figured out where to take the exercise and bring it into a full-blown story. Never throw out an old writing snippet: one never knows when it might bloom into something else.

The Exercise

The exercise began as a study of how to incorporate local geography into a situation. I had two teenage boys in Fifield, Wisconsin trying to figure out what to do for the night. It’s an area I’m familiar with, having lived in Prentice Wisconsin for the first six years of my life and having relatives a few miles north in Park Falls. During those first years, Dad would pile us into the car every Friday and drive to Park Falls for dinner at the local Pizza Hut (a habit that would forever link Friday nights with pizza in my mind). After dinner, we would visit my grandma and grandpa, along with my aunts and uncles who happened to still be in high school. I must have absorbed some of what my then-teenaged relatives were going through and made up the rest from my own teenage years. There’s not a lot to do in Park Falls when you’re a teen, or at least it always seems so. The twisting local roads are sparsely used and it seems logical that away from prying eyes, something like racing old beater cars would be born. In the exercise, the situation and rules of the race were laid out but that was it. There was no central story problem, nothing to challenge the protagonist, Knox.

From exercise to story

The first order of business was to give Knox, a problem. The exercise hinted at one, where Knox’s friend Steinke pressures him to enter the race. Knox demurs, but agrees to go see the car. After all, what else are they going to do on a Friday night? Just looking at a car couldn’t hurt. But when they arrive, there is a group of teens waiting for them. Knox isn’t sure whether he’s been set up or if its just something kids do, waiting for someone to race that night. The story picks up with Knox behind the wheel, realizing how dumb the situation is, but unable to resist looking weak in front of the other kids. Peer pressure is a little cliché, but so very relevant to the teenage experience. Knox, now the center of attention, decides to race. He may not take the race seriously, but he very much minds the implied social stigma of not at least making the attempt.

The Middle

The story jumps to the middle of the race, where Knox decides he’s going to try breaking the record. How does he make the switch from “this is stupid” to “I want to beat the record?” How does the mind of the bulletproof teenager think? I only needed to mine my own experiences of stupid teenage acts and map out the thought process. He realizes that he’s having a good time, despite it all, he’s feeling confident in his control over the car, and then there’s a girl at the turn-around paying attention to him (which Knox doesn’t consciously realize is feeding his ego). How does Knox overcome his aversion to stupidity? In little spurts. It will just be a little more risk, his new-found skills with the car and his youthful reflexes will more than compensate. He listens to his need to make a mark on the world, his fear of amounting to nothing in life, and slips into a fantasy world where the movies are just like real life. He deliberately deceives himself and starts pouring on the speed. Like I was as a teen, he wants to believe he can control everything. Of course, at the height of his self-delusion, the foreseeable unexpected happens in the form of a deer. Knox loses control, and crashes.

The Twist

I could have had Knox learn his lesson on the side of the road, and have either the police, the wrecker, or his parents come in for the story climax and resolution. In normal literature, that’s what would happen, but I’m not that knife of writer. There has to be something odd about the situation. Normally, this is where the sci-fi/fantasy brain kicks in and adds a dose of the fantastic to make the story exotic. But I kept things mundane because northern Wisconsin is exotic enough already. The fantastic in this story is still plausible if a little improbable.

I began to wonder how the teens could keep the racing tradition going for so long running the same two cars. If the cars evolved, I thought, the race would slip into obscurity because the kids wouldn’t be able to connect with those that came before. Look at the arguments about sports legends today. Players from different eras can never be truly compared because the rules and equipment have changed. Maybe Bart Starr is the greatest Packer quaterback ever, but his stats will never compare to Brett Farve’s or Aaron Rodger’s. In car racing, even so-called stock cars change from year to year, so it’s hard to compare Richard petty to Jimmy Johnson. Therefore, I decided the cars never change in this story.

But kids will wreck cars beyond repair when doing dumb stuff like this. So I imagined a fleet of cars, hidden from view, ready to replace any wreck. But who maintained these cars? The kids certainly wouldn’t have the funds to do so. Someone else was needed. This someone would also solve another problem. If kids had been doing this for over twenty years, then everyone in the area would have to know about it. Older, wiser heads should have long prevailed and put a stop to something so obviously dangerous. But what if that was the whole point of the race? What if the kids who crashed all lived, learned how close they came to death, and paid it forward by making sure the next idiot didn’t get killed?

Though I make it out to seem as if I planned this all out ahead of time, the fact is it all popped into my head in a few moments like this: two old crappy cars, built to withstand abuse, maintained in secret by the old competitors. The who’s and the why’s of it all came later as I turned the idea around in my head.

Maybe I’m just justifying myself after the fact. What do you think? Do you plan your story themes out ahead of time, or do they materialize in the middle of writing?

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Grist for the Mill

It has been said that the paradox of writing is that writers seclude themselves to write about life while the rest of the world goes about living it. Back when I worked for someone else, my daytime hours were spent interacting with my fellow co-workers, which provided me with all kinds of story ideas. These days my daytime companions are two cats, who spend most of their time sleeping. My challenge each week is going out into the world to observe everyday life, find new ideas, and interact with others.

These past two weeks have been good to me. It turns out my new city, Bentonville, has a nice art museum called Crystal Bridges . The art collection spans from the 1700s to modern day and sits on several wooded acres crisscrossed by walking paths. Best of all: admission is free. Two weeks ago, I treated myself to a Friday afternoon’s visit after completing my weekly word count. I spent just over two hours looking at paintings and sculpture, trying to understand why certain pieces appealed and others didn’t, ending up with a headache at the end from concentrating too much. I was not aware of time passing, or of my concentration. However, I felt like I had absorbed as much as I could in that time and needed a break afterwards. What did I learn from this trip? What new insights did I have? I don’t know. I know I filled the hopper in my head with art, I’ll just have to trust my subconscious to grind and sift through it all for something new and interesting later.

Last week was spring break for the kids. We took a few days to go visit St Louis, and toured the Science Museum, the Arch, and the City Museum. While I spent as many hours at each museum as Crystal Bridges, I did not feel fatigued when we left. No doubt my concentration was never fully engaged due to having to follow the rest of the family around – I normally read the plaques next to each display and have to catch-up when I realize I’ve been abandoned. These experiences filled up the hopper in my head too, and I expect something will pop out one day that had its beginnings during my visit.

(By far, the most interesting place was the City Museum, which I can only describe as an art museum you can crawl on. If you find yourself in the St. Louis area, I highly recommend it.)

Tonight, I accepted a last-minute invitation to have dinner at a friend’s house. While there were many reasons to accept (not having to cook or wash dishes for example), the most appealing reason was that it gave the opportunity to meet their houseguests and socialize for a few hours. Humans are social animals, and while many writers like to think they must step back from life so to better observe it, they must also keep one foot in reality and honor that need for face-to-face interaction.

Does barbequing in the back yard make you a better writer? No, but a writer who stays locked up in a room will eventually run out of things to say.

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The Streak

This isn’t going to work. You’re never going to be finished. I want to play a game. I sure could go for some coffee right now. Are those dirty dishes in the sink? It would be better to run errands now while everyone else is at work. What’s new on Facebook?

-Wade’s Monkey-Brain

For those of you who watch the blog’s scoreboard, you will see that I have hit my word target for three weeks in a row, which is a new record. Why the success? There are a few little things that all added up to a big boost in raw word count:

Small Apartment

When the apartment takes no more than an hour to clean each week, there is no excuse to procrastinate by engaging in domestic chores.

Change in Schedule

Writing in the morning makes it easier to nibble away at the word count throughout the day. I’ve found that if I get 500 words down in the morning with my morning coffee, it’s easier to sit at night after the kids go the bed and do another 250.

Noticing Initial Resistance

I’m forcing myself to sit in the chair and knock out at least half a page (125 words) before I get up for anything. Once I reach 125, the monkey brain has worn itself out trying to distract me with minutiae, and I’m warmed up for another 200 or 300 more words before I need a break.

Working Saturdays

If I hit my daily word target, I don’t need to write on the weekend, which is a pretty nice incentive. But if I’m short on Friday, I can almost always find an hour on Saturday to complete the weekly goal.

Working Multiple Projects

If I’m stuck on one story, I can often switch to a second story and make progress. When the second story sputters and stalls, I can switch back to the first and find I can push on. When I’m stuck on both, then it’s time for a break.

Keeping the Streak Alive

Finally, there’s enough competitiveness in me to not want to break my writing streak. If I’m within 750 words by Saturday morning, I’m confident I can complete my count.

Sometimes it’s the little tricks that keep you going. What tricks do you use to keep writing when you don’t feel like it?

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This Week, a New Writing Space

This week we moved into our apartment in Arkansas, where we will stay until our house is completed in April. It’s a roomy enough two-bedroom unit but a lot smaller than the house we left. My new writing space is a desk wedged between the closet and bathroom door in our bedroom, and each evening I must remember to return the chair to the dining nook if all four of us want to sit at the table. The walls are the color of weak hot chocolate, and the blinds are drawn because we live on the ground floor in full view of the parking lot. It’s very distraction-free, so despite getting a late start on the writing routine, I’ve nearly hit my weekly word count. I think the release of pent-up moving stress has helped the creative juices flow a bit easier too.

In other news, my short story Daniel’s Keep is in this month’s issue of Encounters Magazine. This story is my first sale, and though I began to doubt its publication, it’s finally seeing the light of day.  I wrote this story back in 2006, and began sending it out in 2007, and it was rejected sixteen times before it found a home.  If you have $0.99, you can purchase a copy here.

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Monomania Innoculation

This week, I watched a documentary about Wayne White, an artist I knew best for his work on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. While I started watching out of general interest in how artists work, what affected me most was Wayne’s decision to not focus his life around the narrow slice of his art that paid the most money. He decided to see where his interests took him and it has lead to some interesting places, including the world of fine art.

The story reminded me how important it is to experiment and play with your ideas, and not worry so much about how you’re going to get paid for it.  It reminded me that while I’m in the writing business, I don’t need to make it the focus of every waking moment. Wayne paints, sculpts, makes puppets, plays the banjo, and occasionally walks around with an oversized Lyndon Johnson mask on his head. A friend described Wayne as someone trying to figure out the world through his art, and that struck me as something I could do too. 

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