Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Unlimited Continues

This has been a busy year for me. A lot has been going on and I didn't get nearly as much stuff done as I had hoped. And I still feel like I got a lot done! But there's one thing I hoped to have done a lot earlier that I'm still working on and that's my second novel.

I started it over a year ago and I'm still editing it. I knocked the first draft out right at the start of the year and since then it's gone through a lot of test readers and is in it's fifth draft. The book it was is no longer the book it is and the book it will be is still on the horizon.

"More than a year? Really, Carl? Come on! What's the hold up?"

Yeah, okay. It's a slow process. I feel like I'm going to slow. But let's remember that there's a lot of other stuff I've been doing this year. I've written scripts and short stories and blogs and writing guides. I've got a secret project, another novel and a novella all part written. Yeah, I've been working hard and doing a lot. Sometimes I get a little manic and have lots of ideas and end up with half-a-dozen projects in the air. And that isn't terrible - we should always be writing and we should always be spacing out our revisions. That said, you could do just as well with only two concurrent projects and not six.

But, still, more than a year? What's going on?

Well, I'll tell you. There's something else I've been doing this year. I've been learning. I feel like I've learned a shit load about writing since January 1st.

Jim Parsons, the editor of Sorceress' Blood, took what was still a rough and barely passable draft of that book and made it into something good, something people would read and enjoy and want more from. And that's exactly what has happened, people have liked it. What more could I ask for? I learned a lot from Jim's notes and it really sunk in that even though I'd learned so much and come so far since I first started writing, there was still a lot more I could learn. So I started learning it. It was an invigorating moment. It was like being in year 12 English, all over again, and my teacher was showing me the power of stories.

And it's been no simple task. You see, I'm an idiot. I need things really spelled out for me before I get it. I need to revise lessons again and again or I just forget them. My brain is like a colander.

The nature of writing is (or at least should be, in an ideal world) that every time you write something it instantly becomes old work that you could improve on. When we write, we learn and when we learn, we get better. We are better than our latest writing and can always go back and improve it.

(And lock ourselves in a cycle of striving for impossible perfectionism. But that's another post for another time.)

What I'm getting at, here, is that I want my next book to be the best book I can make it. I want it to be a great story and a great piece of writing so even more people can get something out of it - especially a few hours of enjoyment. This has meant tireless re-plotting and rewriting. Whole chapters have been scrapped and more than a few have been recreated from the ground up. It's been a massive task.

But we, as writers, writing for an audience, owe it to our readers and to ourselves to do that work. And do you know what the best part is? We get as many tries as we need. At any time this year I could have said "Good enough!" and published. But that's irresponsible. That's a waste of my time and yours. There's no excuse for not making something the best you can.

So don't call it done until it's done. Edit, revise, rework, rewrite, rethink. Do it again and again and again. Learn new tricks and new lessons and then apply them to your writing. Be better, make better. Nobody is stopping you. You can go around again as many times as you need and you should. Don't rush.

Like the man said: Make good art.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

No More Words

Let’s get rid of the idea that you’re writing words. You’re not. Words are not your concern. Here’s a list of questions you have no business asking:
How many words have I written?
How many words is this story?
How many words should be in a chapter?
How many words should I write today?
How many words make a novel?

Words is something publishers and award judges worry about. Word count is an issue for magazines and people who do page layouts. University professors give you word limits, not you. There are times word count will matter but I'm willing to bet that right now it doesn't matter for you any more than it matters for me. You’re a writer and until you’ve finished your story then you’ve got no reason to be obsessing over words. At the best, it’s a distracting and at the worst it is ego masturbation. Public ego masturbation. Public ego masturbation with a banana and oats smoothy. That’s gross. Stop it.

Here’s another idea to get rid of. The writing process goes Words > Sentences > Paragraphs > Chapters > Story. No. That’s stupid. Where did you even get that notion? Sure, it’s technically true but it doesn’t help us at all. Get rid of it.

Here’s what we want. You don’t write a story by writing words. The basic, fundamental, smallest unit of a story is a statement. “The cat is grey.”, “Ricky dances like nobody is watching.”, “The would-be author masturbates his ego, in public, with a banana and oats smoothy.”, “Everyone thinks that is gross.”, “Joey’s stomach rumbles.” These are all statements and these are the elements of a story.

You string enough of these together and you start to get a beat. A beat is a connected set of sentences that form a moment in your story focused on one thing. It is a moment in time in which things happen, blows are exhanged, decisions are made, tears are cried. “Joeys stomach rumbled.” This is a statement. “Joey’s stomach rumbled. Joey doubled over, clenching his gut. The pain reminded him how long it had been since he’d eaten. The regret hurt as much as the pain. He regretted what he’d done. He regretted wasting that banana and oats smoothy. Now all he wanted was some ice cream to dull the pains.” This is a beat. Specifically, it is an emotional beat. All those statements connect together to create a moment, a moving image in our mind, an understanding. It communicates short, connected ideas. If those ideas were less about how Joey feels and more about Joey fighting a large dog, then it would be an action beat. But it is not a story yet.

Don’t confuse a beat with a scene. A scene is a larger unit made up of several beats. A scene looks a lot more like a story. Hell, some very short stories are made up of only one scene. You’d be hard pressed to find a scene that is made up of only one beat, though. Continuing on:
“Joey walked down the street towards the ice cream parlour. He could taste the bacon and taro ice cream already. He knew, deep in his gut, that ice cream would make everything better. A large dog stepped out of the alley in front of Joey. The animal dragged a dead komodo dragon by its mutilated tail. Joey and the animal locked eyes. Joey felt his hopes for bacon and taro flavoured solace crumble. The dog dropped its komodo carcass and growled at Joey. The animal charged Joey. Joey puffed out his chest and rose up on his toes. The beat snapped and barked. Joey dropped. He curled into a ball and prayed it would be over quickly. The enormous canine leapt at Joey. Joey prepared for the end, readied himself to enter the great beyond with only his mounting regrets for company. It was all over and he would forever be known as that guy who did terrible things with banana and oat smoothies. He couldn’t bear to think what his eulogy would be. The dog over-estimated the distance. It soared right over Joey. The animal collided head first with a passing circus wagon. A bearded lady caught it in mid-air and stuffed it into her suitcase. The wagon passed on and Joey, hearing only silence, got up.”
And scene. Count the beats. How many action beats? How many emotional beats? How long is each one? How are they divided? You can work it out for yourself but I will give you a few of my 

Pro Tips.
Pro Tip 1: There’s no regular or set length for a beat or a scene. They are as long as they need to be.
Pro Tip 2: A lot of this scene is action but the action halts in the middle for an emotional beat and then the action resumes. This is normal. Beats cut into each other like that all the time.
Pro Tip 3: There’s more than action and emotion beats. That should be obvious. I’ve referred to them because it helps to see one beat in contrast to another but the practice of catagorising beats is probably a waste of time. When looking at beats, don’t get hung up on what kind of beat it is, just know that it is a beat.

What comes next, you’ll be glad to know, is story. A story is just a series of connected scenes forming a beginning, middle and end.
“Joey masturbates his ego in public with a banana and oat smoothy. Everyone leaves Joey. Joey is sad and hungry.”Two beat scene. The beginning. “Joey walks down to the ice cream parlour. A dog cuts him off. The dog attacks him. Joey throws himself on the ground. Joey prepares to die a lonely and hungry freak. Joey regrets everything. A bearded lady in a passing circus wagon grabs the dog. She puts it in her suit case. Joey gets up. Joey is alone again. He’s unsure what it all means.” Action. Action. Emotion. Action. Emotion. Five beat scene. The middle. “Joey enters the ice cream parlour. It’s cold and bright. Joey orders an ice cream cone with bacon and taro ice cream. The server hands him his ice cream and Joey pays. Joey feels better.” Four beats. Scene. The end.

Look at that, it’s a story. It’s got three scenes, eleven beats, a beginning, a middle and an end. How long is it? Who cares? Not me. It is long enough to tell the story it is. That’s the important part. Forget your words. Write statements. Make those statements into beats. Make those beats into scenes. Make those scenes into a story. Words are cool but stories are awesome.

And stop masturbating your ego in public with banana and oat smoothies. Sicko.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dreams and Winter City Issue 7

Last night I had a dream about authors John Green and Neil Gaiman hunting a pair of demons. The demons were on a shop-lifting spree through a shopping centre. Strange and kind of cool. But I can't get the picture of Neil Gaiman with a demon-hunting sub-machine gun out of my head.

In other news, have I mentioned? Winter City issue 7 is out! I've been so busy talking about writing and voicing my opinions on controversial political issues that I forgot I need to be shamelessly promoting myself from time to time. So, ta-dah! Winter City Issue 7!

We think it's pretty cool and you probably will to. If you're in Australia, go ask if your nearest comic shop is selling it. Odds are good they will be. For everyone else: has more information and an online store.

Monday, December 2, 2013

I Am A Pineapple

It's true. I bet you didn't know it, but it's true. I am a pineapple. I'm tough and I'm prickly on the outside - but it's only a thin layer. That said, on the inside I'm not much softer but I am very sweet.

Alternatively, one might also say I have the spirit of a reclusive, crotchety old man. I'm the guy who sits out on his porch in his rocking chair, listening to the grainy sound of his old wireless and enjoying the afternoon sun. But you put one foot on my lawn, you damn kids, and you'll hear about it! And turn that damn rap music off! You know back in my day... Huh? A point? Hold on.

Let me finish painting this picture. One one side of my rocking chair is a table with my old timey radio and a perspiring glass of fresh lemonade. On the floor, by my feet, is a stack of books. Yes sir, I never much cared for the television once they stopped showing the Bing Crosby programme but I sure do love books. And I've got so many books to read, old and new. Some in my pile are books by authors I love, some are old favourites I want to revisit and some are books by authors I don't know but their book sounded interesting. One thing is for sure, though, that pile of books keeps growing faster than I can read it.

And you, sir, your book is in my pile. It could be three books down, it could be the next book, it could be at the bottom for now but I guarantee you it is there and I will get to it. Feeling special? Don't. I'm a grouchy old man and I'm short on time. If you're an author I love, then I'll cut you a lot of slack. I'll forgive you a lot of mistakes and keep giving you chances. But I doubt you're Stephen King or Jim Butcher. You and me? We don't have a track record you can rely on.

No, sir, what you've got to rely on is page one. Or rather, if I'm in a good mood, you're writing a genre I like and I'm desperate then you've got page one and maybe page two. But that doesn't happen often. If I'm in a bad mood, you've got one sentence to impress me. Most of the time, you can rely on my attention for one paragraph. That right there is your free pass. You want me to read your story? You want me to throw down the cash and buy the book? Then you better hook me with that first paragraph. Shit better be happening, son, because your book might be standing between me and rereading The Mysterious Stranger for the seven hundredth time. You probably can't be better than Mark Twain but you can be engaging enough to distract me from Mark Twain.

That right there is the secret, kids. You don't have to be the best, you don't even have to be perfect, you just have to make me interested. And that shouldn't be hard! I've already picked up your book. The cover caught my eye, the blurb sounded interesting and now all you have to do is make that first page work. And it's not just me, either. Your audience is full of people like me. Or it might be an agent or an editor with a big stack of manuscripts competing for their attention.

Say it with me, now: Page one. Stuff happens, questions are asked, the story hits the ground running. A character says "This was a stupid idea" and now I want to know what was a stupid idea. The building explodes and rains glass down on the streets below and I want to know what caused it.

I can and probably will write a lot more on opening a story but this isn't the place for that. What you need to take away from this right now is simple: I have a lot of other stuff I could be doing, your book needs to make me forget about that stuff from the very first page. Chapter 1 is not a promise of things happening later, Chapter 1 is things happening with a promise of more stuff happening later.

But buck up, champ, because the good news is that I (like a lot of readers) am a pineapple. If you can crack the shell, then you'll find me a devoted reader. Grab me, hook me, suck me in and I'll stay willingly. Alright, the duct tape on these metaphors is starting to show. I'm going to scram before it gets any more confusing.