Spring has Sprung

Hey folks,

I hope Spring has found you in good spirits, all motivated by the arrival (or anticipated arrival) of warm weather, sunshine, and the end of snow. Personally, I’m loving it. After a second long, cold winter in a row, it’s nice to put away the long johns, stop worrying about frozen pipes, and not feel like I’m going to freeze solid while doing farm chores. It’s not just me, either – the farm critters are enjoying the milder climes too. Chickens are laying more, and the lambs can come out of the barn and bounce around the bale feeder while the ewes eat.

On the creative front, I’ve spent most of the past few weeks editing rather than writing. It’s a part of the over all story-crafting process that doesn’t get as much attention as writing. Less glamorous. If you see a writer on a big screen, he or she is staring at a blank screen, willing words to emerge. He or she is most certainly not staring at a full screen of text, contemplating what to delete. Writing is fun, writing creates, writing brings forth. Editing is deletion or tedium; “killing your darlings” as I think Stephen King put it.

But I’m not good enough to write perfect stories on the first take, so I have to edit.

Most of the recent work went into a version of One Last Dance. A market had appeared, but had a hard cap of 5,000 words. The story had 6,000. Thematically, the market was a good enough fit that I thought it was worth seeing if I could take out 17% of the story’s words without losing anything in the story.

My first pass-through got me half way there. There were a lot of cases where I could replace passive verbs with active verbs (“had been ___” to “___ed”) or merge actions and dialogue tags (“…He said. He stood.” to “…He said, standing”). It was no more than one or two words at a time but it added up. I cut out some “Um” and “Er” filler that served to demonstrate hesitation on a speaker’s part but otherwise just inflated word count. Occasionally, a line of redundant description or dialogue would get the axe as well.

Subsequent pass-throughs were more difficult once I’d edited the low-hanging fruit. A paragraph describing the protagonist’s armor was much condensed. A conversation got trimmed. In some cases I was okay with these deletions, but others had little bits I liked, so whacking them wasn’t easy. Hence Stephen King’s quote from earlier.

By the end of it all, though, I’d shaved the story down to 4,995 words and felt that little of actual value had been lost. Certainly the core story wasn’t changed. I sent it in to the market almost two months ago, but their deadline isn’t until the end of April. It’ll be another long wait.

Meanwhile, an apocalypse-themed antho opened up, so I took another pass through Sponges. I’d already edited the crap out of that a few times, so there was little language-wise to adjust. The big thing this time was that I’d written the first draft around 2011, setting it in the near-future with a scene mentioning NATO in Afghanistan. But with NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan now having ended as of last year, the scene now served to explicitly place the story in the past. That didn’t make a lot of sense because I think we’d all agree there was not sponge-related apocalypse in our recent past. Yes?

I contemplated updating the scene to ISIL and Syria, but that again seemed to date things too specifically. In the end, I adjusted it to be Pakistan fighting AQ in northern Pakistan, as this seems to be an open-ended conflict.

I fired Sponges in to its target market in late March, so along with One Last Dance and Black Sheep, I’ve got three stories out there right now.

What’s new in your neck of the woods?

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Hush

An quick update and then some thoughts on monsters on this not-as-frigid-as-it-could-be Saturday morning; note that there are a few movie-related spoilers.

Update:  Having submitted two stories to the Tesseracts anthology, I learned on the 11th that Piano Girl had been rejected. As of this morning, however, Black Sheep has not. I’m taking the lack of news on that front as a positive thing. I’ll admit I get a little nervous checking my email now – I’d really like to make that sale and hold my breath just a bit as I scan the new messages.

Now, let’s talk monsters.

I was critiquing a story for my group a little while back and encountered a bit of a…well, pet peeve, I suppose. The story – otherwise a pretty well done, creepy horror tale – featured a paranormal entity. It was clear from the narrative that it was “alien”, yet as the protagonists interacted with it, we readers could discern its motivations and the rules the author had it operating under. It was a cool twist on an old idea.

And then it spoke.

See, I’m generally of the view that talking monsters are less frightening than non-talking monsters. This is partly due to the fact that my own imagination generates a pre-conceived notion of what a monster might sound like – so even if the author does a good job of voicing the monster, it’ll clash with my preconception and knock me out of the story. More importantly, as soon as the monster speaks, it ceases to be a monster. It becomes a character. I no longer have to guess at its motivations and feel unease about not knowing, because the monster generally tells me: Eat/kill/destroy/whatever.

Let’s look to the recent Tolkien movies for examples. In Return of the King and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we see protagonists attacked by big-arsed spiders. In the former, Frodo gets stung/impaled by the giant Shelob, cocooned, and tucked away for later eating. In the latter, Bilbo’s disoriented dwarven colleagues are set upon by spiders in the Mirkwood, cocooned, and tucked way for later eating. So far so good. But while Shelob continues to be a big, freaky spider until Sam saves Frodo’s hide (again), the Mirkwood spiders are ruined when Bilbo puts the One Ring on his finger; now he, and we, can understand these spiders. Their chittering turns into cartoonish-sounding, “I’m hungry! Can we eats it?” dialogue. That didn’t scare me. That made me laugh.

Okay, another comparison – the fiery balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring and Smaug the dragon from The Desolation of Smaug. Once again, both are huge, monstrous things and are set up to be scary because everybody who sees them or knows of them acts scared*. When the balrog shows up, it never utters anything remotely similar to human speech. It’s left to us to decide why it’s pissy at the heroes as it attacks. Smaug, on the other hand, wakes up and starts talking, and talking, and talking. I had that initial moment of, “Hey…isn’t that the guy who played new-Khan?” and then found myself kind of waiting for Smaug to just shut up already.

Anyway, I ended up recommending to my fellow writer that he eliminate his monster’s lines. Don’t know if he chose to go through with it.

But all that to say, dragons appear to be popular this year. I’ve already seen three dragon-theme anthologies announced the past few months. It seems logical, then, to try to cash in…er…see if I’m inspired to craft something for artistic reasons. I have an idea in mind, and it requires the dragon to be a big, scary thing. But it also has to communicate with the protagonist.

That poses a bit of a conundrum, doesn’t it?

I’m looking to The Purge: Anarchy for a possible course of action. If you’ve seen it – you probably haven’t – it’s a future where America suspends rule of law one night a year and basically everybody acts out their worst urges while they can get away with it. One of the villains is a tall, lean guy wearing a creepy mask and waving a machete. For most of the movie, he doesn’t say anything. He and his equally creepy buddies show up in their creepy cube van to chase the protagonists around. When they finally catch the protagonists, cuff them, and chuck them into the van, one of the protagonists starts yelling and taunting him. The camera cuts to the impassive villain, at which point I assumed my pet peeve was about to happen yet again.  I was like, “Noooo!  Hush!”

Sure enough, the guy takes off his mask and talks. But he’s not a grizzled killer. He’s a fresh-faced kid. And he isn’t all “Rawr! We’re gonna torture you with stuff until you beg to die.” Instead, he says, matter-of-factly, something to the effect that some rich people are paying good money for live captives to chase around and murder. He and his buddies are making ends meet by making it happen. Awesome! The dialogue didn’t make him more relatable – it made him less relatable and showed us how corruptive the entire concept of the Purge was.

I think that’ll be my approach. The dragon will speak/communicate, but its dialogue will be less, “RAWR! Gold good! Kill theives!” and more, “You can survive this if my interests are met.” Or something. Gimme a break, I’m still working on it.

So anywho – who did you find scarier: Shelob or Mirkwood spiders? Balrog or Smaug?

*We’ll come back to this another time.

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Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Holy cow, we’re into February.

The month/year got off to a slow start, to be honest. I was aiming to have a new story for the superhero-themed Tesseracts 19 and started having that problem I’ve had before: Not being sure what perspective to tell the story from.   Took a while to sort that out, but I went with the one that provided a bit more “meat”.

Still, I was struggling and eventually realized that although I’d created a character with awesome powers, I hadn’t shown them in action.   So I built in a new beginning to the story that illustrated the powers being used in one way – and that led me to conclude the story with the powers being used in a very different way.

That spurred me on; I ended up at 4,600 words, ran it past my dear wife for a basic “Is this okay/Is there anything really awful?” review, and fired it in slightly before midnight.  Ended up calling it Black Sheep, which isn’t terribly exciting but will do until I think of something better.  I also submitted Piano Girl, which I’ve mentioned of late, as it’s got superhero content.  We’ll see whether the editors care for either of them.

Now I seem to have a bit of momentum, so it’s on to another project. This time, it’s dragons – there’s a themed antho closing at the end of February, so I’ll see if I can squeeze ths out. I’ve already started it…three different ways. Yup, another of those. I’ll let you know if/how it turns out.

Note:  I’ve edited this post as it was spoiler-ific.  Sorry!

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Looking Ahead to 2015…

The door is closed on 2014, but now we open the door to its successor, the aptly named 2015. What might this look like? What shall my goals be?

Well, my word count went from 58,000 in 2013 to less than half that in 2014. That needs to be improved upon. Three hundred a day (=109,500 a year) has been recommended but still seems unreasonable for me. Let’s just see if I can get back to 58,000 this time around.

My completion rate also slipped from 2013 to 2014, and needs to be turned around. Can’t sell incomplete stories unless I’m dead and famous, right? Last year’s 50% target was entirely reasonable, and I’ll aim for it again. I think, however, that I’ll consider multiple “takes” on a single story to be one story for the purposes of this statistic. It’s not like I’m ever going to finish more than one take on a story.

I met the goal of writing two horror stories last year as a means of broadening my horizons. I want to keep this up, so this year I’m aiming to write at least one story in each of the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres.

Something I’m starting to think about is a book. I don’t know yet whether that means a novel or a collection of short stories, but I’m drawn to the idea of having a title that is exclusively mine. I won’t commit to one or the other right now, but will plan accordingly:

For a novel, I’ll start by outlining it: Chapter-by-chapter plot summary, major character biographies, and an “elevator pitch”; Sheep-willing, I’ll get to CAN-CON this fall and sign up to do a novel pitch to an honest-to-God publisher, too. I have four possible stories in mind, of which two would build on previously completed short stories (Lonesome Charlie Johnstone’s Strange Boon and One Last Dance). The other two are incomplete novellas, one being low-key alternate history, the other sci-fi noir.

For a collection, I’ll start with some research into the process of doing one – whether I should stick to one genre or go anywhere, should I seek a theme, how to organize it, etc. Then I’ll go into my folders and see which short stories (complete or incomplete-but-advanced) might be worth considering for such a project and compile a tentative table of contents. Ideally, editing of some stories would follow.

From a learning point of view, I think previous year’s intentions have been good. I’ll aim to get to one learning event – ideally CAN-CON – and I’ll read at least one book about writing. The missus is going to an April event called “Romance in the Capital” and may come back with some material or info of interest to me.

What’re your plans for the year?

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2014 in Review: Thunk!

Hey, it’s my second annual review of my year in writing, posted five days early because why not?

My objectives for 2014 were…

–>Write 80,000 words: Nope.

–>Finish half the pieces I start: Nope.

–>Write two completed horror stories: I’m going to give myself this one.

–>Go to a developmental event: Tried to, sheep stopped me. Bad sheep.

–>Read a book on writing: Hey, I did that.

–>Post on the blog more: Er…whoops…

In total, I wrote 28,300 new words spread across nineteen new or previously incomplete pieces. Of that, sixteen pieces totaling 15,400 words remain incomplete. The issues seem much the same as last year. Sometimes I got gung-ho to do something, didn’t finish it, and forgot about it, as in the case of my gender-swapping story. Other times, I can’t pin down how I want to tell a story and take multiple stabs at it – three times in the case of a noir story and three more in the case of a dragon fantasy piece. Neither has come to fruition yet.

So that left me with a grand total of just three completed pieces, with 12,900 words:

Toasting Melba, the vampire sheep story, at 5,200 words

Between the Rock and Agonyspace, a sci-fi story at 3,500 words

In The Fun Room, which is a horror/fantasy piece of 4,200 words

I also did a fair bit of editing on five previously completed stories. This generally reflected a need to meet new market guidelines for theme, tone, or word-count (Between the Rock and Agonyspace was severely downsized from 5,600 to 3,500 words for a market limit). In the case of Dreams of Saskatoon, Memories of Bangladesh, I needed to de-emphasize the twist of it being a time-travel story because the target market was a time travel anthology and everybody would’ve been all “Well, duh…”.

I was published twice.  The Shining Path did indeed appear in Martinus’s Alternate America, to good feedback and strong sales. Last year’s Dead Air appeared in Apokrupha’s Vignettes from the End of the World. The latter was my only sale of 2014, out of around a dozen submissions, but some of the rejection feedback was very encouraging.   Some stories even got encouraging rejections more than once (yay?).  As mentioned in my previous post, I regained rights to Live at Gus’s Place as its intended anthology did not come to pass.

There was also some neat public relations opportunities – the CAN-CON-sponsored “On The Brink” reading in May, with a preceding radio interview. I read snippets of Lonesome Charlie and Shining Path at the event itself. I also did a couple of blog interviews, though one has not yet appeared on the internet.

Some Q&A:

Shortest Piece:  The third crack at a dragon story got a whopping 144 words in before I said, “Nuh-uh, that ain’t working”.

Longest Piece:  Toasting Melba

Longest Incomplete Piece:  When Anakar Met Susan is at 1,800 words. This is a romance/fantasy I fully intend to finish. Just need to get back to it.

Favorite Piece:  Of the three completed ones, Between The Rock and Agonyspace. I’ll probably go back and fill it in a little bit some time, but I was pleased that I touched on some sociological issues, wrote a strong female protagonist, and surprised my test-readers with an unexpected yet logical conclusion.

Favorite Incomplete Piece:  Like last year, this is really difficult to select from. I think I’ve got six new incomplete ideas that could turn out to be excellent stories – if I get off my butt and finish them. An untitled fantasy item involving dragons has strong potential if I can pin down how I want to tell the story.

Biggest Accomplishment:   Being published again was certainly exciting, but I’m going to go with the slot at “On The Brink”. I was quite flattered that I was asked to participate in event, and look forward to seeing other new, up-and-coming Ottawa-area writers at the next event.

Biggest Disappointment:  The second half of the year was kind of bad – I’ve posted about all that already, so won’t repeat it – but even when I did have time to write, I often wasn’t motivated enough to actually go do it. I’m hoping better times make for a happier and more creative me in the new year.

Biggest Lesson Learned:  It was, in several respects, a good year for learning about the business of writing. I saw the power that positive reviews and marketing can have on book sales, I learned how the royalty side of publishing works, I saw the PR stuff in action. Even got some experience with contracts. All in all, that’s not a bad set of experiences to have in hand as I move forward.

I’ll hold off on prognostication for 2015 until the next post, to appear in a few days…

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One Step Back, Two Steps Forward?

Hey gang – how’re things?

It’s been awhile, I know, but the last couple of months have been pretty crazy.  More or less as crazy, in fact, as the couple of months which preceded them.  There was a loss in the family, illness in the family, and even the pace at work picked up.

I managed to do a wee bit of writing, but my mind just wasn’t in the right place to finish anything.  I’ve got two strong starts that I want to get back to – both in fantasy – and there’s a couple of ideas that I really like but can’t translate into effective stories just yet.  Thought I had one sorted out, but the missus effectively dismantled the outline.  Couldn’t argue her logic, but perhaps the central character will still see light of day.

Didn’t manage to make it to CAN-CON this year.  We can blame the sheep for this; I came home the Friday of the convention weekend to find half the flock on the wrong side of the pasture fence.  Consequently, while my writer friends attended panels on world-building, cutting-edge science, novel pitches, and a martial arts demo, I was installing an electric line around the perimeter of my pasture so the herd didn’t stage another Great Escape.  It’s worked well – but why that weekend of all weekends?

I did review a novel for one of the other folks in the writing group.  It’s her first, and while there were naturally issues with some of the characters and plot, she generally expected most of what we brought up at the critique.  I think she’ll be able to generate a stronger second draft and wish her the best in selling it.

I, on the other hand, actually did the complete opposite, and unsold a story.   Specifically,  I contacted a small publisher which had bought a story called Piano Girl (or, alternately, Live at Gus’s Place, which I think I’ll dispense with) from me in mid-2013.  The intended anthology was, for reasons I’m unaware of, never published.  Since the contract specified that rights would revert back to me after a year – which was this past summer – and since there are other markets for which the story might be suitable, I contacted the publisher to confirm my understanding of the contract.

It was correct, so the story’s free again.   I’m going to blow the dust off this two year-old superhero-ish story and see if and how I want to edit it.  Then I’m going to fire it in to the superhero-themed Tesseracts Nineteen.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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Current Events

I was into techno-thrillers big-time when I was younger. I bought them directly, borrowed them from the library, found them in rec rooms at mine sites and the kitchen tent of exploration camps.

I was always irritated by the dumb ones – say, the North Korean commandoes hijacking an American ballistic missile submarine – because they just didn’t seem remotely credible. And there were others that didn’t seem remotely plausible but were creative enough that I could roll with it, such as the Russian mole hijacking an American space shuttle.

But there were some authors who could conjure credible scenarios. Tom Clancy spun a tale that concluded with a commercial pilot flying his jet into the Capitol Building, and another with a second Gulf War and an airborne weaponized Ebola attack. Dale Brown wrote a novel about Ukraine and Russia going to war, and another with Russia attacking Lithuania. Larry Bond’s solo debut was about another Korean War. These authors seemed to understand what actually could happen, make it believable, and craft an enjoyable story about it. Their names and others were common sights on my bookshelf.

And since then, we’ve watched (live) as jets fly into buildings and thousands dies in the explosion, fire, and collapse. We’ve heard of the sinking of a South Korean frigate by North Korea and see current speculation about a possible regime change in the DPRK. Log onto the net today and we’re getting updated death tolls from the West African Ebola outbreak, the lastest on the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, and the mounting international airstrikes against a transboundary terrorist group I’d have laughed off as over-the-top caricatures fifteen years ago.

These scenarios-come-to-life tend to come with unsympathetic protagonists, unhappy outcomes, and a whole lot more pain and suffering than we encoutntered when it was just some notion from a writer’s imagination. It’s put the genre of techno-thriller into an “uncanny valley” for me. The bad stuff is crap. The good stuff is too close to reality, and techno-thriller reality generally sucks.

So my reading tastes nowadays have shifted; it’s more escapist in some respects, with lots of sci-fi and fantasy. I can dig this stuff, because I’m reasonably satisfied aliens or orcs or (for Warhammer 40,000 fans) alien orcs are not about to invade us. There’s also more down-to-earth mystery fare, the non-sensationalist stuff where a person gets murdered for a mundane reason. These work because while they can and sometimes does reflect reality, it’s a reality that I’m de-sensitized to. People do, unfortunately, get murdered or accidently killed for mundane reasons all the time.

My preferences for writing have reflected this. As a teen, I actually did take multiple stabs at techno-thriller and spy-type stuff. There was world-war stuff, there was secret government conspiracy stuff. Over the past five years – my “serious writing” era – I’ve only done one story (Into Exile) that reflects current events (the Arab Spring), and even then I jammed a huge Sci-Fi spanner into its works toward the end.

All this to say – I’ve got a bit of a head scratcher on my hands right now, because I’m attempting to fuse techno-thriller style current events with what I think are some relatively original superhero concepts. I find myself challenged because the story should have stark, dreadful elements within it. The people whose situation I’m borrowing deserve that I not gloss the horrors they face. Yet I find myself just not wanting to write those awful things when the file’s open. I suspect it’s going to be one of those “This’ll rock/This’ll be a train wreck” propositions if and when the piece is finally completed.

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