Aug 14 2017

In Which I Need to Start Getting Somewhere

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So recently, at Barnes & Noble, my attention was drawn to a hardback on the “fantasy new releases” table, featuring what was described as “flintlock fantasy with airships, a touch of humor, and an engaging female hero.”

I nearly burned the place down. ¬.¬

After the writing, revising, submitting, re-revising, submitting again, and so forth that Sky Pirates of Calypsitania has gone through, to see this thing sitting there made me want to scream at the top of my lungs, “THIS SHOULD BE MY BOOK!”

So. Yeah. I was upset. Deep breaths. Let’s work this thing out.

On the positive side, clearly someone must think there’s a market for the kind of books I want to write. I mean, there it is. But I have to connect to it.

And to be clear, I’m pretty sure that the author of that book worked just as long and just as hard on it as I did on mine. My own personal green-eyed-monster popping out notwithstanding, I wish them success.

That doesn’t alter the fact that I had this extreme, intensely emotional reaction to seeing “my book with someone else’s name on it” right there on the very table where I have been trying to get my book for years now. What I have to do, is direct that energy in a positive direction.

If this is the team that put the book on the table, I reasoned, then it could serve me well to hook up with that team. A little research turned up the agent of not-my-book. I went back and rewrote the opening, again, to address feedback the book had received on the previous round, getting thumbs-ups from my beta readers, and sent it to that agent. Given that this particular agent has a strict “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” policy, however, the response could easily range from an excited followup any day, to chirping crickets until forever.

I don’t intend to wait. As far as I’ve been able to make out, the main thing that makes a writing career succeed (besides lightning in a bottle) is sheer volume. The most popular and well-paid writers I know get that way by writing a lot of books. And as much as I love Sky Pirates of Calypsitania, it is only the one.

What this boils down to is, I need to work on another book. I’ll keep shopping Sky Pirates around as long as it takes, but I can’t leave my career on hold waiting for any one project to move.

I have been trying to write a more “mainstream” fantasy, and I got maybe a third of it done as part of last year’s NaNoWriMo, but I keep running into a fundamental paradox: in trying to adhere to more standard tropes in order to make the book “sellable,” I feel like I’m just aping other people’s work, which in turn makes for a book that I’m not sure I would read, myself.

Of course, it’s just the first draft of said book, and so there’s an argument that I should just finish the thing, with “rip out all the Tolkien” being one of the goals of the second draft. But if I know all the Tolkien needs to come out anyway, then leaving it in there for the first draft feels like creating work I don’t need to do.

So perhaps I should just leave that one in the drafts folder and start a whole new project that’s more like what I want to write.

But I need to do something. I need to get somewhere.

-The Gneech

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Nov 19 2016

The Official #NaNoWriMo Punt Post

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As things have developed, both public and private, I have decided that my I need to change my priorities in the upcoming months. To that end, I need to put By Elves Abandoned on the back burner and work on other things. Instead of working on those other things and feeling guilty about not hitting wordcount goals for NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided to simply let that go.

The book still has a lot of potential, and I expect to pick it up again before too long, it’s purely a matter of timing. Maybe my own personal NaNoWriMo will come in February, we’ll see!

Suburban Jungle will keep going, and punting on NaNo will hopefully give me time to fix up lingering issues I’m having with the current storyline and the direction the comic is taking generally. Fortunately, that only takes me a couple of days a week and could be done at night or on the weekends as needed. I am also still working on finding a publisher for Sky Pirates of Calypsitania.

How Not to Suck at Overwatch is also going to go quiet for the foreseeable future. It was a fun project and I enjoyed it (and I’m very grateful to the friends and fans who made it possible), but at least for now I have other things I need to concentrate on.

As for what I am working on, that’s not in a stage where I’m ready to tell the world. But when the time comes, I will! But until then, I’ve got commissions to finish and a comic to draw, so I’d better get to work.

-The Gneech

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Nov 16 2016

Fantasy Novel vs. D&D Campaign

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When I started trying to brainstorm for NaNoWriMo this year, I had nothing to go on. Months of shopping Sky Pirates of Calypsitania around to agents had received mostly chirping crickets, with the occasional “You’re a good writer, but… nah.” On the advice of J.M. Frey, I decided to write a more “mainstream fantasy” novel that would help me get my foot in the door, figuring that once I had a body of work, it would be easier to get people to buy in to other stuff.

But again, what to write? I can craft prose all day, but creating a compelling story is much tougher. Finally, with nothing else to work with, I said, “Fine! I’m taking some of my unplayed RPG characters, tossing them into a scenario, and writing it as a book!”

On the good side, it definitely got me rolling. I have some protagonists and a broad story arc, and that’s all good. However, there is one big problem with this framework, which is: most RPG campaigns, even good ones, tend to be a never-ending string of fights. Whether it’s orcs or stormtroopers, the “filler” of an RPG campaign is generally going to be battles with monsters… which can make for dull reading.

Yes, the blow-by-blow of a tense action scene can be exciting. Bilbo’s encounters with trolls, goblins, spiders and dragon (and later Frodo’s encounters with ringwraiths, orcs, trolls, more orcs, more ringwraiths, more orcs, easterlings on oliphaunts, more orcs, a giant spider, still more orcs, and a giant pit of lava) are iconic. But what really makes a battle interesting is not who slashed what or cleft the other in twain– it’s what changes as a result of the battle.

And that’s where the neverending string of fights in a D&D game fall down as fodder for a novel. As a rule, they don’t change anything, other than to nibble away at resources. In a novel, the “five rooms full of orcs” at the front of the level that lead up to the “boss” at the end would lose readers after the second fight. “We’ve seen this already!” would be the cry of the frustrated reader. “Get on with it!” (And they’d be perfectly right to do so.) The first fight with orcs is interesting, because it’s new, which means it changes things. The fight with the boss at the end is interesting, for the same reason. (And presumably the boss has some kind of plot coupon or other thing to make them worth fighting in the first place on top of that.) The stuff in the middle? Gets mercilessly summarized unless and until it makes an impact.

So this is where my NaNoWriMo project actually hits an uphill climb: I have more or less completed act one, with the hero about to set off on her journey with her new companions. While I have the next big change– the “boss” of the next section so to speak– worked out, I need to figure out interesting and relevant things that will take the character from here to there. In a D&D game, this would be an overland journey with some random encounters, ending in a dungeon complex, easy peasy. For a book? It has to matter, or be cut. And that’s the tough part.

-The Gneech

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Nov 01 2016

NaNoWriMo, Away!

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NaNoWriMo has launched! The first scene of By Elves Abandoned is written, and I think it’s a good start. I’ll be posting it to my Patreon tomorrow for supporters after my morning re-read.

Woot, woot! And now, on to another Overwatch PotG commish…

-The Gneech

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Dec 04 2013

Is That Mumbo? Or Jumbo?

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Back in 2006, when SJ was coming to a close and I was looking at the whole writing thing, I invested in a copy of Dramatica Pro, a piece of software that hails itself as “the ultimate creative writing partner.” I banged around with it some then, with mixed results… and by “mixed” I mean “not very much in the way of useful.” I did write a lot of stuff– 1200 words detailing the childhood of a character who ended up being cut from the book for instance. Oops. But I didn’t get much actual story from it all, among other things because I kept getting hung up on all the jargon the program was throwing at me.

The software, you see, is based on the “dramatica theory” of storytelling, which is a slippery hodgepodge of narrative structure and pop psychology meant to appeal to the kind of writers who think The Hero of 1,000 Faces is the One True Book of Writing. [1] So to get the most use out of the software, you have to A) understand, and B) buy into the whole dramatica model, which treats characters as “types” and lays out all stories as an interplay of relationships between those types (and gives you the prescribed “right answer” for said relationships). It’s all very abstract, which it would kinda have to be as a unified field theory of plot, and at the same time comes off as a straitjacket. “If your protagonist is a Perceptive type, then the opposing concept is Fate.” That kind of thing.


As far as the actual plotting of the story goes, it seems to mostly be a modified snowflake method, starting with a one-sentence tag line, expanding to a one paragraph synopsis, and so on. However, I never actually got that far using Dramatica Pro because I always got bogged down in the character section, trying to shoehorn one character into the “Impact Character” role, another into the “Guardian” role, etc. Instead of just a relatively simple list of who the characters are and what they’re about, mapping the characters to the various types is supposed to show how they relate to each other later, guiding the story structure and blah blah blaaaahhh forget it.

There is a newer version of Dramatica Pro only for the Macintosh; since my new Mac lappy is my “writing machine,” I downloaded a demo to give a try last night, wondering if it might be more useful, or at least a little less of an uphill climb. Verdict: It’s a little more fun to play with just because it’s not stuck in 1999 in terms of user interface, but all the core problems are still there. Lots of jargon, little in the way of nuts-and-bolts story creation. Being able to give your impact character a clipart character avatar doesn’t make your impact character any less obscure a concept.

So for now at least, I’m sticking with the snowflake method. It worked pretty well for my NaNoWriMo novel, I just need to get better at thinking in terms of more “novel-length” stories.

-The Gneech

[1] For the record, The Hero of 1,000 Faces is a great book and has a lot of useful insight. But it’s a scholarly study of world mythology, you’re not supposed to use it as a paint-by-numbers formula for screenplays, everyone in Hollywood. ¬.¬

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Dec 01 2013

Learning From My Trial By Fire: @NaNoWriMo 2013

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NaNoWriMo Winner 2013Thanks to National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo), my third full-length novel, and the first novel-length Michael Macbeth story, Who Tend On Mortal Thoughts, finally has a solid first draft. I actually got to “The End” somewhere around 48,000 words on November 25th, and spent the next three days going back and finding any and every thin spot I could find to expand out a bit terribly worried that I would fall into the dreaded “Close, but no cigar!” category . But then, just after midnight on Thanksgiving, I managed to pull it off, earning the Winner’s Screen, the bragging rights, and most importantly, the experience of having spent a month as a full-time writer on a tight deadline and knowledge that I could indeed hack it.

Yesterday, I spent mostly sleeping, followed by steak dinner and a trip to Barnes & Noble (the literary geek’s equivalent to “I’m going to Disneyland!”). I also did my best to not think about the book at all, although I did find myself going back and adding another 100 words or so in a moment of weakness. Now that I’ve had a little time to let it sink in, it’s time to reflect and try to pull some lessons learned from the experience.

  • Yes, Virginia, I am a writer. This isn’t something I learned really, but it was a nice reminder of something I already knew. I put in long hours and bent all of my brainpower towards getting this book done within the deadline, which included coming up with logistical strategies (“I won’t be able to get any writing done Sunday, I’d better double up on Saturday and Monday…”), exercising discipline (“I really don’t feel like writing this scene, but the story won’t work without it…”), and improvising fixes for damage control (“Ack! This part of my outline actually makes no damn sense for this character to do this action at this time. How can I fix this?”). But as grueling as it was, and as wiped out as I was by the end of the day, I was never once as resentful or burned out as I was by any given day of the former day job. This is my true and correct work, what I “should” be doing– now I just have to solve the logistical problem of making it profitable.
  • 2,000 words is a pretty good day’s work for me. The target for NaNoWriMo is an average of 1,667 WPD (or 11,669 per week), but that also assumes you’re going to write every day of the month. 2,000 WPD for five days a week comes to an average of 10,000 words per week, which is still a pretty ambitious pace but allows you to recharge your batteries. So when I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, that will probably be my target for a regular project. I know that there are people who claim you can easily crank out 10,000 WPD, and they may be right, I’ll certainly investigate the possibilities. But for now, a target of 2,000 WPD makes three novels a year comfortably possible, and that’s a good place to start.
  • “Write the book you want to read” may not work, but is probably a good place to start. It’s no secret among those familiar with them that my Michael Macbeth stories have always been “I wanted another Dirk Gently book, dammit!” at their heart. Who Tend On Mortal Thoughts started from this same premise, and when stuck I often went back to “What would a Dirk Gently book do here (besides miss another deadline)?” But of course, Michael is not Dirk Gently, Richmond Virginia is neither London nor Cambridge, and I am not Douglas Adams. So by the end of the book, I still came out with something that was almost, but not entirely, unlike a Dirk Gently book, and I now must consider the work on its own merits and flaws. I think it’s a good book, and I think there are even parts where it might be a great book. So that’s not a bad consolation prize, anyway. 😉
  • I really need to write “fatter” and slower. The “sweet spot” for novel publication, particularly in the genre I was writing for, is 75k-90k. I was trying to come up with a novel to fit that size, and it took a lot of going back and fleshing out to get it to 50k as it was. But when I sent the beta readers to check out the first rough of the first act, the reaction was a pretty universal “It happens too fast”/”You’re skimming over the plot”. I suspect this is because I write the same way I read (or watch movies), looking for the plot points and ignoring everything else. I don’t know when I got so ruthless about throwing out everything else, and really it’s not a good habit. If I’m going to read that way, why bother with a novel at all? Why not just read the Cliffs Notes? Or an outline. [1] I have to remember that sometimes, just taking delight in the characters and stepping into their world is also “the good stuff,” and that I shouldn’t be afraid to write a scene just because it would be a fun scene to include.
  • I need to bake more complexity into the plot directly from the outline. I still need to develop the skill of thinking in terms of more complex stories. Right now, I have graduated from “A + B = C” (short story) to “A + (B + C)/D = E” (novella/short novel). I now need to level-up to “(A + B) / (C + D) + E = F”. If that makes sense. Which it probably doesn’t to anyone but me. Point is, I don’t need a “bigger, more epic” story, but I do need a story with more layers and a more intricate structure.

There is probably more, but that’s the extent of what I can easily bring to words right now. I’m very glad that I could finally participate– and win– NaNoWriMo. I don’t know how people can manage to pull it off with a day job! But anyone who jumps in and gives it a real try, whether they reach the arbitrary 50k “finish line” or not, you have my admiration, affection, and respect. I’m proud to be among your number!

-The Gneech

[1] Actually, upon reflection, the Cliff Notes comment may be telling. So many of my college literature courses were of the “Read six novels this week, ten novels the weeks after that, and the entire works of William Shakespeare by the end of the semester…” variety that eventually I gave up and did just read the Cliff Notes because there was no other way to get through the class. Not proud of the fact, and always regarded it as a major failure of the University curriculum that I was forced into it. FWIW, for most things at least, I did try to go back and actually read the text later in adult life.

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