Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goals for 2010

Here are my writing goals for next year. Achievability is crucial, so I have a plan to meet each goal. I have also looked at contingencies and challenge goals (because I am an overachiever).
#1 -- Get my completed fiction published

Sell Zombie Proof Fence
Okay, so I might not have 100% control of this, but here is what I can do:
  • Keep it in the hands of agents. If one set doesn’t take it on, query the next set.
  • Put it in the hands of publishers. Simultaneous subs don’t fly with most publishers, so this is a serial process--one publisher at a time. One has a partial now. I have three more in the queue so if the first doesn’t like it, it goes to the next.
  • Revise. Have good feedback on the lastest draft, and the MS is over-length for the target market. That means another draft. I hope to do this with the editorial inputs of a purchasing editor, or at least an agent, but it will see another draft this year.
  • Advertise. Through blog, Twitter and Facebook, make sure people know it’s available. In 2009, these forums netted one Agent requesting full MS, and one publisher requesting a partial. So, yes, the web presence helps.

Sell short stories
This is an ongoing process. I had 4 short story sales last year, 2 of which were published, 2 still pending. To quantify this goal: Sell at least 4, at least 1 to a pro market. Here is what I can do:
  • Submit existing stories. I have ~12 stories done. Keep them in the mail, and if one is rejected, submit to another market that same week (challenge goal: resubmit in 24 hours).
  • Write new stories. Duh. New material, showing my best writing. These are the ones with a realistic chance of selling to a pro market (as most of my existing stories have already done those rounds).
  • Advertise. Same as above, but the goal is more to generate traffic/sales for my publishers than to sell my work. I want people to read my fiction, and I want the publications I appear in to be successful and to benefit from publishing my work.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Advice for the New Year

Here is my New Year’s Advice, this is targeted at writers, but applies to everyone:

  • Tip351 - Year's end-a good time to ponder what you have written this year, and what you plan to write with the next.
  • Tip352 - Keep your goals realistic -- if you reach too far, you will disappoint yourself and that is difficult to recover from.
  • Tip353 - Why not break yearly goals down into monthly goals. See? Much less intimidating.
  • Tip354 - Planning: break monthly writing goals into weekly goals. Keep these loose so you can respond to events in your life.
  • Tip355 - Build a spreadsheet to track progress against your goals--success only counts if it is measured against failure.
  • Tip356 - Now you have a target. What do you need to reach it? More writing time? More know-how? More support? Make a list.
  • Tip357 - Take your list of needs and look at each--how will you meet this need? Is this realistic? Who can help?
  • Tip358 - Are you part of a local writing group? You should be. The new year is a good time to join one--or start one.
  • Tip359 - What did you NOT finish this year? Is important to finish it? If not file it away and don't worry about it anymore.
  • Tip360 - Almost the new year. Why not start early? Get your list of next year's goals and tackle the first one.
  • Tip361 - Look around your writing space. How can you make it better? Do so.
  • Tip362 - Music is a great way to modulate your mood--which helps the mood of your writing. Find mood music for your project.
  • Tip363 - Family is often the writer's first and best support. Thank yours, and support their passions as they support yours.
  • Tip364 - Writing creates flab. Magical flab. Make a new year's resolution to exercise you body and mind.
  • Tip365 - Writing can be lonely. Surround yourself with enjoyable people to welcome the new year. You may take this one day off.

There you go, have a happy and productive new year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unapologetically Strong

Had an interesting discussion on “unapologetically strong” female leads, which seem to be popular of late. It’s an interesting label. But what does it really mean?

A man who is unapologetically strong is what? Pushy, unconcerned about the feelings and needs of others--a jerk in other words. This is not a good choice for protagonist as readers are unlikely to sympathize with such a person.

So is that what an unapologetically strong female lead is? A jerk? And if so, why do so many people like to read about characters like this? It seems to me that a person who behaves with callous disregard for others is a poor choice for a protagonist whether male or female.

Don’t know--but a strong character is certainly someone readers can connect with. Strength can mean uncompromising, determined, stubborn, driven--many things that people respect and admire. However, for such a character to be sympathetic, someone a reader is going to bond with, someone a reader wants to spend 400 pages with, then this strong person needs to be concerned about the needs and feelings of others. Thus, a strong but sympathetic protagonist is probably not unapologetic.

Curious how others define this and what their reading experience is like.

Friday, November 27, 2009

You finished NaNoWriMo, now what?

It’s revising time!

You’ve won NaNoWriMo. Wow. Now you have 50-70K words of...what?

Something...maybe something good; but rough, cluttered, inconsistent, even embarrassing in places--not something you can do much with...yet.

The next step is to revise. But where do you start? How do you do it? What do you focus on?

Here are three books that will help to answer these questions and more:

Revision And Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

This book rocks.

Scott begins with twelve chapters on core story elements you should check and enhance while editing, including Characters, Plot & Structure, Scenes, Dialogue, etc. He then offers three chapters of advice on the process, and finishes with “The Ultimate Revision Checklist” which runs 39 pages and provides a structured walkthrough of everything discussed previously.

This had the most influence on my revision process and has some really good advice, and a sound theory of fiction that can be used for plotting, outlining and writing in general.


The only downside: much of the info in this is duplicated in his other book Plot & Structure, so you really don’t need both.

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

This is a series of workshop-style exercises that can be used to revise a manuscript (and are also good in the formative stages to solidify an outline). It covers things like multidimensional characters, inner conflict, stakes, complications, subplots, fixing low tension scenes, and pitching your completed work among others.

These exercises are a good bridge between a 1st draft and a second draft, and most of them assume you have a finished manuscript to use in the exercise. They also compliment (and have a slightly different flavor from) his book: Writing the Breakout Novel, which I also recommend.


The downside? It will take while to get through the exercises, and another read-through and draft will be needed to pull the vivisected novel back together again, though it will be much stronger. Second, his other book: The Fire in Fiction is mostly redundant information.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

This book has some great tips and techniques for focusing in on character, layering in depth. Especially for NaNoWriMo works, going back and taking another pass to expand, enhance and evaluate the characters will make a rough story a strong novel. This book has good tools to make characters multidimensional, dynamic and to help portray emotions in more subtle, engaging ways.

This is also good for general theory, as well as a reference to use during the planning/outlining phase.

There you have it, three ways to turn your NaNoWriMo productivity into a novel you can be proud of.

Status -- November 27, 2009

Slow week for writing -- going through the motions, but focused on family and medical stuff. However, have some good news: Made finalist in the St. Martin’s Press “New Adult” submissions contest sponsored by #YAlitchat.

What this means is that a) I won a book (wahoo!) and b) St. Martin’s will be looking at a partial. As a fringe benefit, I have come into contact with several other aspiring authors in the YA and New Adult markets, and had a referral to an agent who asked to see a full.

Other news:
- Beta Readers have their packets and are reading.
- 2 rejections on short stories.
- 1 new short story 50% done.
- Brainstorming on next project.
- Set up files for next draft of ZPF.
- Having great fun playing Modern Warfare 2.
- Spending way too much time on-line shopping.

That’s it for now. Plan to post some articles for NaNoWriMo authors, and get more short fiction out the door.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Status -- November 15, 2009

Finished 3rd draft yesterday!

Ordered Beta-Reader copies today.

Beta’s should see something Thanksgiving week or right after.


  • clean up metrics
  • eradicate defunct files
  • list a few odds and ends that I will want if I do a 4th draft.
  • Ping Beta’s to verify they are still interested, and how deep they want to go.
  • Draft checklist for Beta’s (3 page for casuals, page-per-chapter for those going deep = 47 pages, + the basic 3 = 50 pages).
  • Query another batch of agents.
  • Wait to hear from the agents who have already asked for fulls.
  • Outline next book
  • Send out short fiction
  • Write some new short fiction
  • Relax a little. Actually this is the top of the list.

Will continue writing fiction every day, and will continue blogging about it here, as well as tracking what happens with ZPF.

Monday, November 9, 2009

If Not For the Day Job

I want to talk about Day Jobs. Day Jobbery as Mr. Lake likes to say. There are some sharp differences between Full Time Writers and Day Jobbers. Let’s examine some of those.

It’s hard watching full time writers through blogs and Twitter--they get so much done in just a few days...and they squander so many hours on silly crap. Often, I think to myself, “If only I had the luxury of that much time...I could draft a book in month. I could finish a book in three. A couple years of that pace and I would have at least a few successful books out there.”

The implicit assumption here is that I would be a more successful writer If Not For the Day Job. But is this true?

Basically, I spend the majority of my time and mental energy in a different field, trading time and talent for a paycheck. The money is nice. There are other benefits as well. But is it worth it?

Let’s examine the merit or lack thereof of writing full time, vs. writing in addition to another profession. I will look at several factors:
  • Writing/Productivity

  • Experience/Knowledge

  • Interesting Characters


Full Time Writers get to set their own schedule. They can spend hours, days, weeks researching. They can put in enough hours to finish any size project in a reasonable amount of time. They have the luxury (advantage?) of completing a project while the passion and the core of the idea are still fresh in their minds. Best of all, they can produce several books in a year.

As a part time writer, it takes weeks to get simple revisions done. Months to get a draft done. Years to finish a single book. At this point, it would appear that all the cards are stacked in favor of the full time writer.


Full Time Writers are versed in writing. Any other knowledge comes primarily from other books...research. For the most part they have little experience or in-depth knowledge outside of writing, especially those who wiled away their education on BFAs and MFAs (though sometimes those beloved souls can string pretty words together...all in a row).

Day Jobbers bring all the experience and knowhow of their profession to the table. Take my Day Job for example. I am versed in a profession, a culture, multiple technologies, and I am plugged into emerging trends and technologies as they happen...not months or years after the fact when it’s captured in a book. However, this depth will only be in one field, one facet of life. For the rest, Day Jobbers have to find time to do the research, and having less time available, the advantage seems to go to the FTW again.

Interesting Characters

Full time writers work alone. They may meet interesting people, but only the social butterflies really do much of this, and most writers tend to be a bit on the introverted side.

Day Jobbers are surrounded daily by fascinating, quirky, ridiculous, and sometimes ridiculously intelligent people. All of whom are fodder for characters and interesting studies in human nature and interaction.

Having a day job puts a writer into slow motion, but there appear to be many advantages to Day Jobbery. I don’t see either path as being the ‘best’ as both have advantages and disadvantages.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Status -- November 8, 2009


76% complete on proof-reading/polishing

1st set of queries sent to agents:
- 4 responses back so far:
-> 2 rejects (waah)
-> 2 requests for full manuscript (yay!)

The Bad:

As I predicted, life has tossed a few curve balls. Day job is up to ~60 hours/week and will be for another week or two. This burns time, energy and creativity. So that’s slowing things down.

I also opted to do another draft...a polishing draft. Doing line-edits on hardcopy: catching typos, eliminating extraneous words, reordering sentences for greater impact, etc. Sentence level stuff. In preparing material for the queries, I found a few embarrassing typos, and noticed a lot of extra words and other minor problems that jumped out at me when I read printouts. Figured I better do that for the whole thing. Luckily, this kind of editing goes much faster than writing, so I’m 76% through it, but the process is trending toward two weeks to complete.

This means next weekend for assembling the beta-reader version (was shooting for today--waah). A bit later than I hoped, but still have a chance to get them out by Thanksgiving.

The Good:

I’ve started marketing the book. First volley of queries went out at the end of October. So far, two agents have asked to see the full manuscript--very encouraging. For those of you not in the business, let me explain:

Getting an agent doesn’t get the book published, but an agent can get the book in front of interested publishers significantly faster than an author can, which greatly accelerates the process. In addition, agents will generally be able to negotiate a more favorable deal. So, an agent seems like a good idea.

What does it mean to have an agent or publisher request the full manuscript? Well, the hierarchy is like this: query->partial->full. Partial = synopsis + three chapters. Full = the whole book. A request for partial is a lukewarm response, the person hasn’t ruled you out, but doesn’t want to spend too much time on you. On the other hand, a request for ‘full’ implies stronger interest, as in “This project looks interesting enough that I’ll take a few hours to read your book.”

Having a request for full is exciting. Having multiple requests for full is very encouraging. Having those requests come in right away is mind blowing. I’ll know in a month or two if any of them want to represent it. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Zombie Survival -- RMA Recommended Training Video

Your survival may depend on being prepared, and understanding how to survive a zombie incursion. The kind researchers at Danger 50000 Volts have prepared this helpful video (in 3 parts) to help enhance your chances of surviving the outbreak:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Refugee Management Admin: Fence Data

Standards based on Refugee Management Administration data collected from camps 7, 15, 23-31, and 42

Barbed wire:
  • #of active zombies: 6-10
  • Time to penetrate: < 15 minutes.
  • Note: 1-2 will often slip through prior to fence failure.

Wood plank from the outside (against flats and posts):
  • #of active zombies: 15-20
  • Time to penetrate: 8-12 hours
  • Note: Once failure condition exists (individual flats destroyed), total failure occurs in < 1 hour.

Wood plank from the inside:
  • #of active zombies: 2+
  • Time to penetrate: < 15 minutes.
  • Note: Active dead quickly dislodge individual flats.

Chain link from outside (against link and posts)
  • #of active zombies: 50-100
  • Time to penetrate: 48+ hours (governed by arrival rate)
  • Note 1: this assumes proper installation of posts: 36” depth with 8” poured footer.
  • Note 2: penetration results from mob topping fence (utilizing ramp formed of other zombies).

Chain link from inside (pushing link away from posts):
  • #of active zombies: 15-20
  • Time to penetrate: 12-16 hours
  • Note: standard chainlink is mounted to the posts by wire or clips at a small number of points. These points break under modest pressures, causing failure by separation of chainlink from posts. RMA recommends reinforcement by 1/2 inch cable at 24 and 48 inches to prevent separation.

Wrought Iron Bars
  • #of active zombies: 75-100
  • Time to penetrate: 48+ hours (governed by arrival rate)
  • Note 1: this assumes proper installation of posts: 36” depth with 8” poured footer.
  • Note 2: penetration results from mob topping fence (utilizing ramp formed of other zombies).

Note that recommended fencing types and installation methods resist breakthrough, but not overtopping by large mobs of dead. RMA recommendation is to clear fence line daily.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hardcopy Read-Through

Heard this advice a few times. After a thorough on-line proof, went through printed version with a blue pen (red makes me feel like I’m in high school) and did line edits. Interestingly, when reading on paper I found a lot of extra words that could be cut, several typos, and some character voice issues that never stood out reading electronically.

I guess the point is, the advice to read a paper version is good. It resets some part of the brain and helps you to see the words differently.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Status -- October 18, 2009

The skinny:
- Finish ending (2-3 days).
- Clean up known problems (3-7 days).
- Print reader copies (2 weeks)
- ‘life’ delays (1 week)
= 1st reader copies distributed around thanksgiving

Ecstasy and Agony
So close to being done I can taste it. But life has conspired to make sure I have as little time as possible to write, and as much stress as possible to distract. Every time I sit down, I think “Wow, just a few more hours and it is ready to go!” Then a couple days slip by and I still have not reached the end of those ‘few more hours,’ even though I am working on it at least 1 hour/day. So it’s a yo-yo ride at the moment.

Still tuning up the ending. I have written down everything that needs to be there, but much of it reads poorly--expositional dialogue that is obviously the author talking. I’ve moved some of it to a comedic / touching final scene in which we learn that the youngest main character is the most adept con artist in the city, along with some menacing imagery that promises future zombie-adventure. However the scene before that is a BOGSAT -- bunch of goofballs sitting around talking.

That second to last scene that needs to sing before this book goes out the door. You see why I am excited? One more scene!

I should (and likely will) go back and fix a few problems I flagged in the last editing pass...mostly places where the continuity is unclear or the writing not up to par.

Temptation: I have spent some time with hardcopy doing thorough line edits. Two lessons from this: 1) I can cut 15 words from almost every page. 2) A number of errors (typos/wrong word/missing punctuation) jump out on the printed page, while I simply cannot find them reading on the screen. Odd. As a result, I am tempted to do another editing pass in hardcopy. Problem is, this would add another 2-4 weeks, pushing the end out toward the end of the year (yikes). I will probably skip this step for now.

POD Services
Reader copies: All the proofs are in. Unexpectedly, I am leaning toward the CreateSpace version. It has a nicer overall look (cover, paper quality, heft). However, it is about 15% more expensive and I have to scrutinize the user agreement--they pre-assign an ISBN and do some other odd things that might ‘publish’ the book without my consent. This could complicate a later sale of the book. Lulu does not have this problem. CreateSpace also charges $2 extra for $0 royalty books...reason unexplained. My proof copy was at the non-markup price, but if the reader copies are at the marked-up price, that makes them WAY more expensive than Lulu (on the order of +$4/copy), which would also make CreateSpace a non-starter.

The Lulu version is good -- decent cover, crisp paper, clean printing. It’s just not quite as ... finished looking as the CreateSpace version.

That's it for now. Writer's group in an hour--my query & synopsis are up for review. Kind of nervous, but it will do me good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Writing Advice: Blending

Here is a tip for all you part-time writers:

As a part time writer, I have to write in fits and starts: An hour here, a half hour there. To be productive, I seldom review old material or outlines during these shorter sessions. Instead I just pop open a file, pick a spot and start writing (sometimes reviewing a scene or two to remind me where I am).

This works well if I have thought about a particular scene, image, character or idea that goes in that area. Often, I will jot down a page or half-page of notes throughout the day, and use these as an outline for that session.

However, these fits and starts lead to a lot of disparate groups of words, sometimes repeating things, sometimes not connecting well to each other.

So, when I have longer sessions, 3+ hours, I will often use them to blend things I have already written. Starting at the beginning of a chapter or section and weaving all the random bits together. This works out kinks and holes in the plot, removes redundant bits, gives language and dialogue coherent feel to the dialogue and wording and sets up a rhythm in that section. I don’t count this as a separate draft, it’s just part of the process I use for each draft.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Status -- October 8, 2009

Tires deflated, starting to pump them back up. Still working through rewrites of the lab sequence. Proofed up to Chapter 49, but 41/42 and 45/46 need significant work--as in tear it apart and reconstruct. This is the kind of work I need a solid block of 5-6 hours to get through, and between family, visitors, and the day job, that simply has not been available. Also lost heart when I saw what a mess this section was. I had expected to find it in good shape, and thought this draft would be done by now. Sigh.

The good news, part 1: Estimating ~20 hours of work left. That is not a lot. The finish line is right there!!! I could get there in two days if I had two days to myself (haven’t had that since 2001 when I was unemployed and single).

The good news, part 2: When I hit chapter 47, it was hard to stop going. The story is fast and gripping (to me at least) and the writing is clean. Also figured out the ending scenes! Though about 5 of those 20 hours are writing and integrating those.

The good news, part 3: Reader copies
Did a test run on a couple print services. The first arrived today, and it looks GREAT!!!! Seeing my book as, well, a book is such a thrill. It’s a long way from being published, but just holding a review copy in my hand is exhilarating--makes it all feel real.

Will post more details on the experience, but I tried both Lulu and Amazon CreateSpace. Set up both versions Sunday. Today is Thursday and the first one arrived...the CreateSpace version (which is odd because they had told me it would be two weeks before it arrived). I am fighting the compulsion to sit down and read it tonight-->have to finish writing it first, right?

From these tests, I will pick one and use it to print copies for my first readers...a collectible for them to keep, and a more lifelike reading experience for them. This route is also far less expensive than photocopying the MS for everyone. Once we get through this process, I will blog about that too to let you know how the readers liked it (or not).

Here is the CreateSpace version:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Status -- September 30, 2009

Going well. 40 of 57 chapters are proofread, tuned up and formatted for printing (that’s 70% for you math majors). This has gone relatively fast as much of the novel has been in better shape than I thought, and for me at least the story is quite engaging (which sometimes makes proofreading difficult). Fixed many inconsistencies along the way, and locked down some key plot and character points. So it has been good.

At least it had been. This week I hit chapter 41 and found 1) an important scene skipped, and 2) major inconsistencies with some earlier chapters. So I’ve had to stop and rewrite this section. Slows me down, but it’s making the book stronger.

I have also decided it needs an antagonist-conspiracy draft just looking at interactions with the antagonist and how both her character and her scheme are revealed. A few things are given away too early, and a few things that make her motivations believable don’t come out until the very end. I figure these two problems are going to cost me a week.

So here are the current stats:

Days Writing ZPF: 399
Hours Writing ZPF: 812

Novel word counts:
- Rough Draft 0 words
- 1st Draft 6506 words
- 2nd Draft 100,690 words

Total Words: 107,196 words

What this means: In this rev I have cut 8,000 words, much if it at the sentence level just by finding better words and removing fluff. The remaining 1st draft portion is the last section which still needs a final chapter.

My original estimate was 70K words and about 6 months of effort. I guess what this tells us is that my estimating procedure needs a bit of work.

Anyway, the goal is in sight. I expect to have 1st reader copies made in October (likely late October). With their feedback, there will probably be another draft in January / February timeframe.

The next big question -- do I start some marketing (agent / publisher contacts) in parallel with the first readers? Or do I want until next year? More on that later.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Status -- September 21, 2009

Because it has been a while:

Through 2nd Draft. Yay. The ending is still broken. The plot ends in a satisfying way, but I have not decided on the most satisfying denouement for the primary characters. They both need a little more to wrap up their emotional arcs. The second draft finished up at 57 chapters, and 114K words. Note the symmetry there.

Started a front to back proof-read. This is mostly for consistency, clarity and grammar. Are they wearing the same shoes as they were earlier? Does a comma really go there? That kind of stuff. In this pass, I am also trying to cut fluff, exposition and ‘pause’ words to get the total length to about 100K words, but it is not compressing at the rate I had hoped.

Have a few places where I did major surgery and need to do a more careful edit (maybe 50 pages total).

Then I will pick an ending, probably drafting 1 or 2 new chapters (I will need at least 2 scenes for the denouement).

After that, I plan to produce 1st reader copies through Lulu or Create Space. Still working out which is most economical, will look best, and will be easiest to use. My current analysis is pointing to Create Space, but there are some features I have not played with, and the final page count is a variable that swings the cost quite a bit.

The .pdf formatting (layout for the reader copies) and final edits are done through Chapter 12. Expect to get draft out to readers in October. Probably late October. Thinking about a round of Agent queries at the same time, but I have not fully thought that through.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Vital Statistics

Since I have not updated these in a while, here are the counts:

Days Writing: 374
Hours Writing: 745.6

Novel word counts:
- Rough Draft 0 words
- 1st Draft 12,760 words
- 2nd Draft 102,259 words

Total: 115019 words

Support files, including outline, dictionary, brainstorming and cut material: 150957 words.
(the amount of supporting material stuns me).

Thursday, September 3, 2009


My story “Doofus” is out in the September issue of Flash Fiction Online. Cute story. Read. Enjoy. Leave a comment. Tell your friends. Only then will the world will return to balance, and if you don't, everyone will think you're a doofus.

Flash Fiction Online is a great magazine, offering several short, entertaining, often thoughtful stories each month. It is, in my unbiased opinion, the best flash fiction magazine out there. You can read it online, and you can subscribe for free though your RSS feed. Did I mention they pay pro rates?

In addition to my tale, there are three other wonderful stories in this issue:
  • Ray Vukcevich’s story “Suddenly Speaking,” one of the most surreal stories I have read in a while, fun too.
  • Patrick Lundrigan’s story “How High The Moon,” a logical conundrum wrapped in a robot story.
  • Classic flash from Punch magazine’s March 1919 issue,
  • And some interesting columns to boot.

Have a look, have a laugh, leave a comment, leave a tip (keeps the magazine going and I get a cut ;), and most important of all, tell your friends!

PS -- For those interested in history, this story emerged from a Writer’s Bloc writing prompt. The prompt was "...the knot came undone..." and “Doofus” was the tale I finally wrote after considering stories about a climbing accident, the Tower of Babel, and an incident involving a Hamas militant.

PPS -- look for Scott Lininger’s Love Bound in the back issues. It’s a haunting and memorable ghost story that also emerged from Writer’s Bloc.

Status -- September 3rd, 2009

Wow. A whole month slipped by. Actually August was fantastic. Completed two months of work. Just didn’t finish. Still, the end of the race is just around the corner. Two weeks, maybe a month?

August saw deep edits to sections 2-7, catching most of the 2nd draft plot and character upgrades. What’s left: tie up the ‘shot’ subplot, minor edits in section 1, start to finish proofread, then print reviewer copies.

Getting excited, eager to reach that finish line.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Status - August 23, 2009

Meh week. Between family stuff and a crunch at the dayjob there was little time for writing, and only about half of that time was spent on the book.

Deep edits are done on 5 of 7 sections. About 1 section behind where I wanted to be by the end of the week.

Only big fixes remaining are the shot sequence, and the clues about the good Doctor’s growing stress. Also playing with an alternative conspiracy theory: what if Dr. Banks and Drake arranged to be on the wall that day in order to let the refugees in, vs. it being a random event? This alters only a few lines of dialogue, but it significantly changes the flavor of events later in the story. It makes the Taft stuff work better (plot and counter plot vs moustache twirling evil), so I think I will go with it; but it also implies the protagonists know a lot more about what is going on than I had intended.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Is Writing Selfish?

I recently skipped a family vacation to write.

This made me wonder--am I being selfish?

For a successful, best selling, multi-millionaire writer, this is a no brainer. For a mid-list author, this is a good question, and for an aspiring writer (like me), it is kind of a daunting question.

Having mulled it over a while, I have not found a good answer.

Let me know what you think, and how you balance writing with other parts of your life.

The cost to others

To be successful, I must write often. My strategy is to write every day. In the last year, I have only missed one day. However, these daily writing nuggets are typically small -- 1/2 an hour, an hour, two hours if I get lucky.

About once a week, I get to supplement these nuggets with a larger block of time. I try for 4+ hours, my wife often pushes back trying to limit this to ~2 hours. These large blocks are vital, necessary to work through especially difficult bits and to tie together the accumulated nuggets.

Here are a couple articles that articulate why writers (and other makers) need these big blocks:

A discussion from a writer’s point of view If you hate meetings, and the original article, which is from a programmer’s point of view: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule

So what impact do these writing habits have on other people in my life?

I get up early to write. Sometimes I stay up late to write. I do not write during family time. So, the net effect is that I spend less time with my wife in the evening, and give up TV primarily, and sometimes sacrifice sleep or exercise. A small but noticeable impact on others.

The big block time has a larger impact. This time is squeezed out of time typically used for family or social activities, as well household projects and (gag) shopping. If you look at a weekend as having 4 periods: AM/PM, AM/PM, then my weekend only has 3 periods because one is absorbed by writing.

And, as previously mentioned, I use a part of my vacation time to write instead of, well, vacationing.

Add this up, and there is definitely a cost to the other people in my life, especially my wife and children.

The benefit to others

But what do they get in return, and is this a fair value?

So far, not much. Writing makes me happy, relaxed, and agreeable, but I have not made much money, nor do have anything published that would impress a non-writer (so my wife doesn’t get to brag at dinner parties...yet).

When I have more published, there will be three benefits for other people in my life: a bump in income, status/recognition, and the one I think is most important: a life lesson that dreams can be achieved with persistence and hard work. This last is an important lesson for my children, as I hope to inspire them to take charge of their lives and live their dreams.

There is also a benefit to the readers, the consumers of my writing. Entertainment at least, but hopefully more than that. I try to pose challenging questions, try to offer some insights on life, and try to offer a message of hope...but it will be a while before enough of my writing is out there for this to be assessed, and as the producer I am not the one who will judge this value.

So, I am undecided. My writing has a cost incurred by the people around me, very little benefit to them so far, but it has the potential to reward them for putting up with it for so long. Is writing selfish? I don’t know.

What do you think?

Status -- August 16, 2009

Back to the day job, and family is back in town. So, the writing has slipped once again into sllllooooowwwww motion. Since the Big Push ended, I have logged only 5 1/2 hours on the book, enough to revise half a section. Was hoping to finish that section by Sunday (today). Not there. Still have three chapters to go.

I have 3 sections (well, 2 1/2 now) and an end-to-end proofread before this thing goes out to the first readers. If this trend continues, it will take another month, maybe even 6 weeks, to get there.

Good news: I am revising an area where I have chapter-by-chapter feedback from the Writer’s Bloc writing group, so my revisions in this section are a bit more focused and confident.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Big Push

I just finished a 10-day writing marathon while the rest of the family was out of town. I kept this time free of social obligations, took a little time off work and crammed in as much writing in as I could.

My goal was to have the second draft done and the book ready to distribute to 1st readers.

It was a smashing success, though I did not get quite as far as I had hoped. Probably a month of normal paced work left before it is reader ready (30% to scrub, and a final read-through).

During the Big Push, I managed to get in two months worth of work. Let me caveat that -- between family and the day job, I have very limited time to write, so my ‘month’ is about what a full time writer can do in a week.

Anyway, reached the end and did a rolling edit going backward, section by section, fixing anything that was broken and performing sentence level edits. Made it through 4 of 7 sections, including the middle section which is 3x as long as most of the others. This leaves 3 sections to edit, a start to finish proofread, then it will be ready to go out.

After getting feedback, I expect there will be one more draft before I begin marketing the novel, but the Big Push has brought me two months closer to that goal in just over a week.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Happy Anniversary

I started this book last year in July, so I am just past the 1-year mark. To celebrate, here is ZPF’s origin story:

It started innocently enough (excerpts from writing journal):

Zombies: Various thoughts
July 14, 2008 -- been on a zombie jag lately, reading some zombie stories and thinking about zombie home defense.

Ahh. Zombie home defense. Sadly, my wife does not take this as seriously as I do, so our home has many vulnerabilities--principally unprotected window wells and several ground level windows on the front porch. We also have a flimsy fence--it could keep a couple zeds out for a couple hours. After that they will probably be in the yard

Next, it evolved into this:

Zombie Proof Fence
July 20, 2008 -- still in the zombie theme
> A story making fun of the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, and of the concept--a long fence that will keep one region of Australia (or another nation) free of zombies.

Zombies remained on my brain, and I realized that human survival would be far easier if natural death did not result in zombieism. To this end:

July 20, 2008 -- still in the zombie theme
Redactol, redactase, redactinase, restorol, restorase -- a drug that can be used to treat the living so that they do not become zombies when they die. The problem is, if this drug is ingested by a zombie, that zombie becomes a super-zombie.

That ended up as Reverol in ZPF the book.

And the final straw:

The kid
>One of my thoughts is that zombies won’t actually win...they will be fairly easy to contain and deal with...the world will be different, but it will still function.
>Show a young kid, 4-6, working as zombie bait...luring them into a trap.
>Kind of silly.
>Point: zombies are not that frightening.

The kid ended up being a 12 year-old refugee, but it took a few months for the character and her arc to solidify.

After this, more and more ideas popped out. As late as August 6th, I was still trying to whittle this story down to 1000 words for the Writer’s Bloc flash fiction challenge.

Then came World Con. The world science fiction convention was in Denver in 2008. So I went. And it blew my mind.

During the convention, the flash story grew into a short story outline, and about 6 pages of notes on the world. A new writer's series at the convention and chatting with several authors convinced me that I should tackle a book.

At some point in August (I did not capture the date), I set aside other projects and committed to writing this book. By September, I was passionately working on it.

Ever since, I’ve averaged 60 hours a month writing, and most of that has been on the book.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Status -- July 28, 2009

Rewrite heaven. Slogging through the hardest part of the book: Mr. Sham’s Basement. This was the second part of the novel I wrote in August last year. Since then, I have completely rewritten it 4 times (meaning I threw out the old and started fresh...4 times).

This sequence is the physical climax of the book, a long set piece scene in which our protagonist is trapped in a very nasty situation. The problem is that multiple subplots, the main plot, and almost all the critical characters in the book converge on this sequence, making it a nightmare for pacing, dialogue and POV. The protagonist, who is the book’s only POV character, is physically trapped through much of this--watching and participating in events from a cage. It seems important to keep the protagonist active and central to movement in the plot, but this has proven exceedingly difficult.

This sequence also determines the X, R, or PG-13 rating of the book. The first version was a hard, horrific X. About halfway through the novel, I realized the story is suitable for YA markets so I downgraded this scene from X to R. The latest version, for reasons more practical than audience conscious, has drifted toward PG-13.

My last estimate (looking forward to when things will be done), estimated wrapping this up mid-July, with a total wordcount of about 10K. Now it is the end of July, it sits at 15K, and I still have two chapters to rework. Ouch.

So, this part is a slog, and I’ll still have to get some distance and read-as-a-reader to see if iteration 4 works.

Hoping to finish this draft in August. We shall see.

A note on music

Even though it has been almost a year, the music I most often listen to are the 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later soundtracks. They have a great feel and instantly set my mind in the right frame. The play count on those tracks is at 128.

I also found industrial German bands whose sound and lyrics are good for the mood -- Heimataerde, the album Gotteskrieger; Diary of Dreams, the albums Nekrolog 43, Nigredo and One of 18 Angels.

For a more upbeat mood, I listen to a few tracks from the Halo game soundtracks, and interestingly (because it is really far afield from zombies), I also find the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack is good for getting me into the spirit of this book.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Two good ways to kill a writer

Recently, I heard a podcaster on the Dead Robot’s Society Podcast advise people to only work on stories they were passionate about and to switch projects when their passion fades. This may work for a few people, but for most people, especially the new and aspiring writer, this is a bad idea, one likely to lead to failure.

Over the years, I have watched dozens of aspiring writers stop writing. Several of these people were very talented (some far more so than me), yet they stopped writing after just a few years, sometimes just a few months. I also know a number of writers who have struggled for an inordinate amount of time with little or no success, people with stacks of unpublished stories and incomplete novels.

There are two behaviors these people have in common. The first is only writing when they feel like it (or when they feel inspired). The second is only working on a project they are passionate about, which leads to starting many projects but finishing few or even none. From what I have seen, both of these behaviors are surefire, almost inevitable paths to failure.

For a writer, especially someone new, the hardest part is simply getting the work done. You have to write, and you have to write enough to learn how to tell a good story. Even ignoring the learning curve, it takes most people a year or more to write a novel, and a month or more to write a short story. After this, they have to edit it and market it until it gets published. Anyone who stops mid way through is left with nothing. Nothing at all.

I have also observed two behaviors that correlate with success better than any others. These two things enable aspiring writers to complete the work they start, and, over time, lead to publication. The first is to write every day (or nearly every day). The second is to write to the end, finishing each story or novel that is started--and I don’t mean finishing a rough draft, I mean finishing a polished, professional, saleable draft.

Of the successful writers I have talked to and heard talk, 95% write on a set schedule (most writing every day) and many talk about working each project to the end with about 60%working only one project at a time and about 40% working multiple projects simultaneously. I happen to be a multiple project writer, but never more than one book at a time.

So the two habits of failure are:
-- Write when you feel like it.
-- Write what you are passionate about.

And the two habits of successful writers are:
++ Write every day, no matter what.
++ Work each project until it is finished.

Two more for the advanced class:
++ Submit finished work until it sells.
++ Hone your craft with short stories, when they start selling, move up to novels.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tools -- MS Word 101 and 5 reasons to make it your writing tool of choice

New and aspiring writers always want to talk about tools, thinking for some reason that a piece of software is going to make them a better writer. I do not think that is the case, but choosing good tools will certainly make the process easier.

In tool discussions, one thing I notice is a great deal of Word bashing, as if MS Word is somehow antithetical to writing or even to being creative. A recent Word bashing session on the I Should Be Writing Podcast inspired me to write this article to dispel the myth, advocate Word as an excellent tool for writers and provide some pointers on using Word.

First, Word is the most readily available word processor, the defacto standard, and is one of the most capable on the market. It also happens to be the tool I have chosen after evaluating dozens of others and I just know you want to be like me--your personal hero.

Aside from turning my computer into a typewriter, Word has five powerful tools that make it ideal for writing: styles, the document map, comments, templates and macros. They are listed in order of utility and ease of use, with Macros being the hardest to master and providing capabilities only power-users really need.

The first key feature, and the easiest to use, is Styles. These are simply pre-set formatting choices that can be selected with a single mouse click. In Word 2007, just select the paragraph or phrase you wish to format and click on the style you want in the ribbon bar. Easy. Power users can create their own styles and modify existing styles to fit their needs. Using the Heading 1, 2, and 3 styles builds an outline into your document that can be seen in the Document Map and used to automatically generate a table of contents. I also have custom styles for hidden text like outlines and paragraphs I have cut but may want to reuse. Macros (below) can modify styles with a single mouse-click allowing an entire document to be instantly reformatted.

The Document Map shows an outline of your work in a sidebar (provided you have used the Heading 1, 2, and 3 styles mentioned above). This map serves as a good reference and by clicking on a heading in the map, Word will jump you immediately to that position. My preference is to use Heading 1 for chapters, Heading 2 for scenes, and Heading 3 both for key plot points and to track completion of parts of my book. To track work, I prepend Heading 3 titles with asterisks: *** = unwritten, just an outline; **=rough; *=drafted, needs proofread; and no stars means that section is done.

Comments are a wonderful feature. You can add comments in Word that show up as thought balloon off to the side of the page. You can put whatever you want in them. They don’t show up when you print the document (unless you tell Word to include them), and comments are easy to remove if you need to mail an uncommented file to someone, say an editor. Even better, your first readers can add comments, which you can merge into your working copy for reference during revision. I use comments for almost everything, inserting the date first, then whatever I need: character notes, things to fix or check, plot or world notes, whatever thought I want to capture, but don’t want in the story itself.

Templates are good for insuring standard manuscript format and saving time when starting new projects or files. Once you have a document formatted the way you want, simply strip out the content (perhaps replacing it with instructions for each area) and save the document as a template. Later, you can select this template when you open a new document, starting out with the set-up you like rather than starting each new document from scratch. My standard template has the correct font, a section at the top for notes, history and a list of things to do, my contact information, page headers and page numbers, all set up and ready to use as soon as I open the file.

Macros are programs or scripts. These take a little more finesse and skill to use effectively, but give Word the flexibility to do almost anything you want it to. If you perform a task over and over, you can record it as a macro, and then play the macro when you need to, letting the computer do the work for you. I have macros that show and hide my headings (since I don’t want them in submitted manuscripts), remove comments from a document and clear formatting from a selection. I have all of these mapped to buttons on my Quick Access Toolbar, so I can perform any of these tasks with a single mouse-click.

A warning on Macros: Macro behavior can be a little temperamental and the record function doesn’t always record what you expect. Because of this, I highly recommend thoroughly testing new Macros before you use them with your precious novels or stories. For complex tasks, you may need to manually debug or manually write the macro, a task which involves editing code in Visual Basic. A good skill to have, but not one common amongst writers.

So there you go. MS Word 101, and five good reasons to make it your writing tool of choice.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Status -- June 22, 2009

Still in rewrites.

July finish is unlikely, August finish is feasible. I am in the second to last section that needs rewritten with only a few thousand words left to be re-written. After this, the story is done and I will turn to clean up and editorial work. This will include a consistency pass (hair color, clothing, usage, spelling, etc.), then a character voice pass, then a trim-the-fat pass. Somewhere in there I will have 3-5 other writers read it and let me know what they think (pacing, story arcs, emotions, characters and such).

At this point, I am still sitting well over 100K, so I need to cut 20-25% of the current material. That will be painful, as that will cut into the meat, but this story needs a fast pace and it is my belief that it will sell faster if shorter.

I am also nearing the 1-year point for working on this project. My original estimate was for 6 months. It will end up at 13 or 14 at least, and I will not be shocked if it runs longer.

There are some lessons to be learned here which should make the next one 20-30% faster, but the voice of doubt is telling me I might have made more progress with a year of short stories.

Kindle 2 Review -- as a reader and as a writer

If you shop Amazon, you have probably been assaulted by an unrelenting barrage of advertizing for the Kindle. If you love books, you have probably heard of it. If you live in a cave, read on because this is something you need to know about.

I received a Kindle-2 for my birthday. I love it--but this electronic book is not a good value. I will explain that in moment. This is a wonderful device for an avid reader, and it is also a very useful tool for writers.

Why I love it:

  • The Kindle (and probably any other electronic book) offers a very compact way to store books, and a pleasant way to read them. It is small, light and has long battery life.
  • The screen is small, about 2/3 the size of a paperback book, but it offers high contrast and is very readable under almost any lighting condition.
  • The font size is easy to change. I usually use a small font during the day, and switch to a larger font at night (tired eyes, lower light). A friend who is visually impaired loves it because he can easily read content using the larger fonts.
  • It can hold a ridiculous number of books. I currently have about fifteen books and about fifty samples.
  • You can load your own documents to it.
  • Unlike a book, you never lose your place, you can set bookmarks wherever you want, you can clip text and download it to your computer, you can make notes as you read.
  • Unlike a book, it has a built in dictionary and free web access (direct line to Wikipedia).
  • My favorite feature: you can download samples for free. I love this as I can try a book or new author for free. The samples are generous, 20-30 pages, and give a feel for the book. If you don’t like it...delete it. If you like it, you can buy the whole thing right from the Kindle.

Why I love it as a writer:

  • You can easily put your own work on it.
  • For me, this offers three benefits:
  • First, it helps me to read as a reader when I am revising. When I read my stuff on the Kindle, it looks like the ‘real’ books I read on it. I can see exactly how the work looks on the page relative to other books. This helps me see what is working and what isn’t and it distances me from the work so I can evaluate it more objectively.
  • Second, it allows me to carry my work with me wherever I go. This lets me do read-throughs (and take notes) anywhere, anytime.
  • Third, it allows me to show people my work.
  • The only down-side to this is that the formatting is dicey--it took me about 8 iterations to find formatting that came across readable on the Kindle and it was a trial and error thing...I don’t know why it finally worked, and I don’t know why earlier formats failed. In addition, features such as tables of contents and headings seem twitchy and you do not appear to be able to choose your own font.

Why it is not a good value:

  • The Kindle is VERY expensive. Other devices in this price range offer a ton of features (email, games, color screens, large amounts of memory, music, voice recording, configurable content and displays).
  • Kindle books are VERY expensive. They cost more than paperbacks. As they are ‘free’ to print and distribute, it seems odd that they are more expensive than paperbacks (which cost about $3 to produce, including the 80 cents or so that goes to the author). Is Amazon insane? Or are they trying to rip us off?
  • Kindle books have draconian DRM, such that you do not really own them (and they can become unavailable at any time, even though you purchased them). This has apparently been a nightmare for people who moved from the Kindle-1 to the Kindle-2 as many books they had purchased would not transfer to the new device. Amazon’s customer service: you can buy the Kindle-2 version if you still want the book -- no refund, no credit.
  • Kindle books have none of the benefits of a traditional book -- they cannot be shared, traded or borrowed. They have no residual value after purchase.
  • The Kindle is a beta product. The first Kindle was a piece of crap. The Kindle-2 is better, but it is still a prototype. Still something under development. Not ready for prime time. They actually describe about half the features as “experimental”. So why does it cost more than an iPhone?
  • The keyboard sucks. It is hard to type on (much harder than smaller devices like Blackberries and cell phones). It is unresponsive. It takes up about 1/3 the total length of the unit. A flip out keyboard or touch screen would work much better. Expect disappointment if you want to type longer notes or try to ‘write’ on it. Did Amazon involve any engineers in the design of this product?
  • It is a heavily marketed profit making machine for Amazon. Amazon makes about 500% more profit per book sale on the Kindle than it does for a conventional book. As you might imagine, this incentivizes them to try and push everything toward the Kindle.
  • It marries you to Amazon as they are the only source of Kindle content distribution. It gives them a monopoly on your content.
  • Amazon has notoriously bad customer service, especially when it comes to the Kindle. Not honoring warranties, charging absurd repair and battery replacement fees, and pushing out new versions without informing or accommodating users of the previous version.


  • I genuinely think this is the future of books. There are a lot of kinks to work out, and Amazon needs to normalize the price points and marketing strategy, but in ten years I think this kind of device will have supplanted traditional print.
  • I enjoy, use it every day and will probably continue to do so.
  • It is also a valuable writing tool.
  • When it falls below ~$150, it will be a good value.
  • When books fall to the $3-5 range, they will be a good value.
  • I predict 3rd party books will become available, and I predict more free content will become available, both of which will make the Kindle a better value.
  • For now, buy one if you have obscene amounts of money or can write it off as a business expense (a writer can). Better yet, get one as a gift (you will feel less ripped off). You also might consider waiting for the Kindle-3 (probably in about a year) as it will probably be the first mature version of the product.
  • Finally, if you wait, the price will probably come down--Amazon simply cannot get the market penetration they need at the current price point.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Status -- May 25, 2009

Made good headway over the long weekend. I had a six-chapter sequence that dragged (“The Crumble”). Thought I could put some Band-Aids on it, but that did not work out. So, I have spent a little over a month gutting the section, replacing it with more action and drama and writing a slew of new material. I have just finished the new bits and I’m ready to stitch in some parts of the old that I am keeping.

A couple weeks ago, I went through the old chapters and line-by-line decided what to keep, what to cut and what to re-write. I now have a heavily annotated file to work from to bring things back to the main plot line.

What in this is useful for other writers? Well, I suggest reading your copy in print. It looks different, it reads different. It helped me see some problems, and some strengths in the parts I was reading and it also fueled some good brainstorming on the characters and the world. For me at least, I read hard-copy more like a read books...I will skim spots, I will get drawn in at others and I won’t be as tempted to edit each line and paragraph as I go along.

In reading hardcopy I use simple marks and only take longer notes at chapter breaks. I use a “+” for good pages, a squiggle “~~” for bad pages, “CC” for continuity check if I think I’ve contradicted myself and “OOC” if the characters are behaving or speaking out of character. I will also squiggle or circle words or phrases that need work, but I won’t rework them in hardcopy.

For this revision, I also x’ed out parts to be cut, and used “A” for adapt (as in take this part and rework to fit the new middle) and “K” for keep as is.

Also sent in the next couple chapters to the writing group here in town. Curious to see what they think.

This puts me about 2/3 through this draft, with 1 more draft and a few weeks of clean up before it is ready for prime time. Not sure that I will get there by August, in fact I suspect it will be later but I will press on none the less.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rant: Strunk and White -- a blight on the English language

A writing topic I often find myself in arguments about is the merit and validity of the oft-cited reference The Elements of Style. Mandated by high school English teachers everywhere, this is apparently the only grammar reference many writers own.

I hate it. I have always hated it, ever since it first left a foul taste in my mouth my freshman year. Oddly, most writers--well, greater than 51% of the writers I have had this conversation with--adore it. They worship it. They cite it as an authority on grammar. Which it is not, and which it was never intended to be (really--just read White’s introduction).

Like most religious schisms, these discussions ultimately go nowhere. The Strunkians go forth grasping to their chests a dog-eared copy of the worst book ever written on the English language, while the rest of us go on to learn grammar and adopt our own styles.

Anyway, people with grammar expertise far superior to my own have now thoroughly and irrefutably debunked this horrible book. They explain its many grotesqueries and weaknesses eloquently and in great detail so I will refer you to the primary sources rather than trying to paraphrase:

Nuff said.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Status -- May 15, 2009

Still reworking the Crumble section. I had previously believed (back in March) this section would be a snap to revise...just needing a simple clean up of a couple chapters. However, I have been beating on this for over a month and it has turned into a total re-write with two new major characters and a completely different plot in this section. I am frustrated by the time this is taking, but it is starting to come together with some good suspense, better opportunities to introduce backstory, a menacing view of the villain, and significantly greater jeopardy for one of the protagonists.

Probably another week or two are needed to make all these changes, but this previously weak section is now one of the best sections in the manuscript.

As this new material is rough, it will need a few more clean-up passes before I am satisfied. At least I am starting to feel better about my progress on the novel and the project’s momentum is returning.

In other news... a pile of rejections on short stories have come in (discouraging), but one editor dropped a note that a story had made the first cut (encouraging).

Friday, May 1, 2009

Status - -May 1, 2009

The short story “’56” came out in Fusion Fragment, that is quite exciting. Have a look.

The book is trundling along--still working edits to section 4 (The Crumble). This is the second of three areas that needed to be gutted. I had hoped to get through all of them in April, but it is slow going. This is part of the process I have trouble with--going in a new direction, yet trying to retain the good elements of what is being replaced. It’s not that hard when I sit down and do it, but I feel no drive toward it and other concerns occupy my mind and I endlessly procrastinate.

The latest “done” projection was August, but I’m now about three weeks behind that and it looks like 1-2 weeks more on this section. Frustrating.

The good news is that I’ve gone back to cleaner sections for a mental break, and have found some good writing there. These sections are fun to read and I enjoy doing little edits on them. However, such excursions are really just a form of procrastination and I am trying to focus myself on the task at hand.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book analysis: The Forest of Hands and Teeth

My analysis of The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan.

Carrie, if you read this: it’s a good first try, and I wish you luck with the next one.

TFHT is a novel set long after a zombie apocalypse, when the world has reverted to a rural substance society, isolated by zombie fences and vast forest plagued by the undead. The story is told 1st person, present tense (a poor choice which I found distracting). The world building is interesting, though inconsistent, and the writing is compelling enough to draw a reader along despite a terribly annoying protagonist.

The story centers on a young girl who spends most of the book uselessly emoting, whining about things that are easy to fix, and doing stupid things that get her friends and family killed. As you may have guessed, I did not connect with the protagonist.

The good things:

It has a very strong 1st chapter. Chapter one starts with some beautiful imagery, then in just 9 well written pages, it sets up nearly every conflict and relationship in the book. This is the right way to start the book (and the main reason I bought it).

By using short paragraphs (few more than three sentences long) and very short chapters (averaging 7 pages), the author keeps up a brisk pace.

Most chapters end with a hook: a cliffhanger or unanswered question.

Most chapters begin with a hook: a twist or new, surprising information.

It has some good world building. TFHT presents a reasonable scenario for a post-zombie apocalypse world where we basically lost, but a few pockets of people survived. There is a well-developed society that appears to have survived for generations in a zombie-infested forest. An interesting, though inconsistent, zombie mythos is presented. Its most original facet is the concept that zombies hibernate when no living are nearby, allowing them to survive for decades in a dormant state.

The social extrapolation with fences, dedicated defenders, drills and escape platforms is good. However, the obvious way to deal with these zombies over a period of decades is to actively kill a few dozen each day so that over time, there are none left. Another way to dispatch them is to use passive defenses that entangle and dismember them as they mindlessly attack. Either way, survivors would take action to thin the zombie ranks rather than idly waiting for them to break through the fence (as presented in this book). Ah well, something future zombie novels can improve upon.

The bad:

Writing drops off after first chapter. Very little imagery is used, and what little there is relies overmuch on simile. The descriptions tend to be simple, generic, and often confusing. There is also a lot of repeated description. The worst one: “tears burning my throat.” This shows up at least twenty times. The overall writing is so different from the brilliant first chapter that it feels there were two different authors at work here.

A deeply unsatisfying ending. Spoiler alert! In the last three chapters, everyone but the undeserving protagonist die. This wraps up all the dangling plot points, but ruins the book.

Poorly developed characters. None of the characters, even the protagonist, are well developed. The boys are one dimensional -- generic, faceless automatons devoid of any personality who are strangely devoted to the protagonist who mistreats them and gets them all killed. The best friend is only described as “sunshine” and displays no personality at all (less than one-dimensional).

Inconsistent world. The zombies change throughout the book. At first, they are weak, harmless things easily held back by a dilapidated fence. Later, they can smash through doors and floors in seconds. And their numbers vary from twos and threes, to countless hundreds depending more on the author’s whim than any logic.

Unsympathetic protagonist. The protagonist is sympathetic at first, a dreamer and an outcast. The problem is, when several other characters rally around her, she remains 100% selfish and I think most readers will quickly come to hate her. She rarely takes direct action, waiting instead for a dues-ex-machina to appear and force the plot one way or another. She gets tripped up by simple problems that could be solved with two lines of dialogue or five seconds of direct action. She gets her friends and family killed one at a time, feeling bad for a few pages after each death before doing the same thing to the next person, whittling them away one-by-one until she is the sole survivor. Never does she see her own mistakes, never does she learn, and never does she try to do better. So the set up is good—it generates reader empathy. But she does not maintain that through the rest of the book.

Unrealistic / unbelievable action. This problem is inconsistent, there are some good action sequences, exciting fun, compelling. But there are a number of gaffes in the action sequences are so bad they unintentionally prove to be the most entertaining element of the book. The first: A puppy proves more effective than a sword (and is used as the dues-ex-machina twice to save the protag from certain death). The second: the helpless protagonist proves more effective in battle than trained, seasoned zombie fighters. It’s not just the juxtaposition of roles, it’s that she displays this kind of emo-rage that gives her super-human zombie fighting powers but only when she is emotionally overwrought. While in an emo-rage, she is able to kill zombies left and right, lopping multiple heads with a single swing of her mighty axe, able to fight on through hundreds of zombies...while just 1 or 2 prove a match for the trained zombie-fighters traveling with her. Weird. Unintentional. Laugh-out-loud funny.

Terrible dialogue. This is by far the worst part of the book. A typical dialogue in the book is: cardboard boy says one word. Protagonist emotes about the implications of that word for a page or more and often doesn’t even reply. Boy follows up with an incomplete sentence. Protag emotes for another page. Boy storms off. Protag emotes some more, repeating much of what she has already emoted about in previous pages. Some chapters consist entirely of this. It is painful to read and bears no resemblance to real human interaction or even to literary dialogue. It is so bad that several times I had to put the book down. Carrie, if you read this please study up on the dialogue before you turn in the next book.

So, that’s the writing analysis. Mimic pace. Improve on the world building, avoid TFHT-esque dialogue and useless, long-winded emoting. And while this is not a book-review, the book is entertaining in that quick-read-by-the-pool way, but it missed some really good opportunities for exploring the world and the characters and parts are downright hard to sit through. I’d give it three stars.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Progress report April 17, 2009

Hurray, a sale. Fusion Fragment just accepted a flash fiction piece, “’56”. It should come out in May.

Getting a fair amount of revision done during the vacation. A lot of activities and family stuff, but I’ve managed to write about 3 hours per day. Just finished the first major block of re-writes, gutting a slow section and replacing 3 chapters entirely.

The section I just started is a stitch together of about 50% new material and 50% old material, but it amps up the pace of the middle of the book (which sagged a bit in the 1st draft).

I am also doing a careful, chapter-by-chapter analysis of “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” (TFHT). I chose this book because of the zombie novels on the market, this is the closet I could find to my own (though they are VERY different). This book appears to have been well publicized (implying the publisher believed in it) and it appears to be doing well. I thought I might learn a thing or two if I closely examined it, picking up some tricks and tecniques that might make my book better. Sadly, the book has been a disappointment, the most interesting parts are skipped, the whole plot driven by dues-ex-machina and the protagonist turning out to be very, very, very annoying. Still, I have noticed a few patterns I may adopt (the good parts) and noted many things that weaken the book (which I will stay away from) and overall the book is entertaining in that quick-read-by-the-pool way.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The missed day

Damn. Missed a day of writing. The first day I have missed in 228 days. The first since August 27th 2008.

How did this disaster happen? First, I stayed up late to get a story out before leaving the country for a while. Then, my dear sweet infant woke up screaming at 3am (teething). At 4am, the whole Fam has to get up to prep for a flight to Mexico. Me with just two hours of real sleep, and another two of restless, interrupted sleep. Many hours later we arrive in Cozumel, spend another two hours in immigration (no AC in the line, packed in a room with three hundred other lucky Americans). We finally reach our destination after 12 hours of travel. The kids are strung out, I’m about falling over from heat exhaustion. Unpack. Shower. Dinner. Kids to bed. And while putting the oldest to bed, I passed out. A few times after that I woke up and thought “I should get up and write for a few minutes,” but I never did.

Well, the good news is that I managed to write 228 days in a row. Some days were not very productive, but I kept at it. Now I have a record to beat.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Status -- April 1, 2009

Ah, such a regular blogging schedule.

Just took this test, the results surprised me, mainly because I was typed as an author I have never heard of or read. How sad. Guess I will be looking up Mr. Clement’s work:

I am:
Hal Clement (Harry C. Stubbs)
A quiet and underrated master of "hard science" fiction who, among other things, foresaw integrated circuits back in the 1940s.

Which science fiction writer are you?

In other news... logged 75 hours in March, a good rebound. But it did not feel very productive. I sketched (flash-length outline) three short stories, two about Grognak the Giant because I am sick and f’ing tired of endless elf stories in EVERY SINGLE FANTASY PUBLICATION ON THE PLANET and I really do not like elf stories. The third was about a unique predator prey relationship, and this one I might finish in April because both characters have great voices and it should be very short (1-2,000 words).

The remainder of the time was on the book, but mostly capturing read-through notes and brainstorming changes for the next draft. I did start the next draft, but in two weeks I have only updated one chapter...I was hoping to get through it faster.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quick status -- March 19, 2009

Have momentum again. Day job is still consuming a lot of time and brain cells, but I am back on a more regular writing schedule. Daylight saving time threw me my block is in the evening now instead of the morning, but the most important thing is that it’s there.

I have compiled my notes on the 1st draft and have concluded that there are three main problems:

1) Protagonist does not have enough attitude--she needs more attitude to be memorable.
2) Plot has holes (Dad’s story arc, scav’s vs. Taft, and a full reveal of Taft’s plan).
3) There are some boring, confusing and redundant parts.

So, nothing earth shattering. I am estimating about a 30% rewrite, but writing the ~30K new words will be relatively quick as I know the characters and world, and some of the key ‘facts’ the new scenes need are worked out in the parts they will replace.

The rewrite will address problems 2 and 3.

Problem #1 is harder to solve. It could permutate the voice of the book, it could require significant changes to dialogue and it could invalidate some plot points. The plan now is to think about it, but not work it hard until draft #3.

In brainstorming sessions this week, I have worked out about 50% of the outline for the rewritten sections, enough to enable me to start writing them next week.

Hopefully, this momentum will keep up.

The Hump

The hump is a terrible problem I face every day. In order to be productive, in order to write well or to make real forward progress, I have to work long enough to get over the hump. This usually takes me about an hour. After that, I’m into it. My mind is churning away and some wonderful stuff comes out...but that first hour is pretty much wasted.

This kills me when the only available time is less than an hour. It very hard for me to generate anything worth keeping in these short sessions. Sometimes I can do it. Sometimes I can crank out 500 beautiful, clean, in character, in voice words in 15 minutes. But not usually. More often the first fifteen minutes is figuring out where I was. The next half an hour is the mental and emotional struggle to get over the hump. In the last fifteen minutes I usually see the first copy worth keeping start to flow.

My solution is to shoot for 2-hour blocks (or longer), or to psyche myself up and focus on one thing before sitting down. With the right focus, the sprints usually work, however I am most productive when I can work without interruption for 5-6 hours. Past about 6 hours I run out of steam. If I am interrupted for more than a couple minutes, my mind will slip out of gear and find myself back at the bottom of that hill, having to climb up over the hump again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Writing on life support

Well, day-job is close to killing me. 60-70 hour weeks and triple helpings of stress. My writing is on life support--some days as little as 15 minutes. I have still managed to write a little every single day, but have not done any meaningful work. I’m mostly done reading the 1st draft, a process that should have taken only 1 or 2 days, which has stretched into weeks.

The good news is that most of the book is solid, there are just a few holes to fill in and some character work to bring them out a bit more. The sad thing is that this work will take months...I am estimating about 3 months.

Did manage to write a flash-fiction story for the Writer’s Block and I think it came out well. That will be critiqued this coming week. We do this every few months... the whole group uses a writing prompt to write stories of less than 1000 words, and we critique them together, anonymously, trying to guess who wrote what. One of these flash pieces was the only the only thing I had published last year (Panel Discussion).

Anyway, I should be on to the 2nd draft next week--March 8th-- crap, I thought I’d be querying agents by March.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Status -- February 7, 2009

Lame week, day job is in long hours-high stress mode and the writing has suffered. The good news is that I am preparing for the revisions, a process that involves some reading, building checklists, thinking about other projects and not looking at the novel itself. In a week or so, I’ll dive back in with a readthrough of the rough draft, reading fast as if I were a reader, followed by a slower readthrough where I mark-up things that need fixed. So, less than 10 hours this week and none of it directly on the book. Sigh.

The End

I reached the end of the rough draft...literally wrote the words “The End” on January 30th, and finished the draft January 31st. Most of it is rough, though some has been revised for submission to the Writer’s Bloc critique group (1st draft) and some has been rewritten after getting feedback (2nd draft).

It’s a good feeling. The book is still several months from being complete, but I am possessed by a powerful feeling of success and a desire to celebrate. The opening is powerful. The ending is powerful. The big finale (a showdown just before the end) is a mess. I skipped over three or four chapters (some due to time, some due to writers block). Those need fixed, but on the whole I think the story works. The revision should be straightforward.

Now I am faced by a dilemma. Most teachers, mentors and books on writing suggest taking about a month off between drafts. This being the first book I’ve written that feels sellable, I want to get to the end ASAP and start shopping it around. So while a month off might be good (relax the brain, work some other projects), the thought of that much time off makes me nervous, and seeing how it pushes the finish line out past June, the idea freaks me out. Hell, not finishing till May freaks me out. I will take a week off. Maybe two. Then see what happens.

So, I am off to read some books, make some checklists and forget as much of the story as I can so that I can look upon with fresh eyes when I do my next readthrough.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Writing resources: Podcasts

A wonderful resource for writers has emerged in the last few years: the audio podcast.

A podcast (for those of you living in caves to escape the zombie apocalypse) is a downloadable radio show you can listen to on an ipod or other mp3 player. Writing podcasts have interviews with authors, advice on technique and other topics that are talked about by the host or cast. They’re a good way to hear how other people do things and to learn about careers, ongoing projects and tricks used by your favorite authors.

The nice thing about a podcast (vs. a book, video or web-site) is that you can take it with you anywhere, and you can listen to it while doing other things. I listen to podcasts when I workout, when I drive, while shopping and when I’m doing busywork at the day job. This squeezes dead-space out of my day, allowing me to think about writing and learn during times that are otherwise wasted.

As far as content goes, you can find just about anything, from fiction markets (Escape Pod, Drabblecast), to author interviews (AISFP), to grammar (Grammar Girl), to insane rants by total egomainiacs(unlisted to protect the innocent).

My two favorites, are Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing and I Should be Writing. Both are well produced, interesting, informative and motivating.

Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing focuses on author and editor interviews with some commentary from the hosts. Shaun Farrell puts it together and it is cohosted by Sam Wynns. They have a good mix of big names and on-the-rise authors and some interesting interviews with editors.

I Should be Writing is a bit more personal, with the host, Mur Lafferty, focusing on her writing. She spices it up with author interviews and seems to be doing more interviews. She also spends a lot of time on listener feedback and questions, which is nice if have a question about something. It is also inspiring to listen to her progress as she started the show as a beginner and just last year had her first book come out.

There are dozens of writing podcasts to check out, but these two are the best I have found.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Weekly Status -- January 12, 2009

Lame week. Near the end of the draft, focusing more and more on revision. Not motivated to crank out the last few scenes. Still enjoying the story and characters, but writing it is starting to feel like work and every random side-project I think of seems more appealing than working on the book.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to hits this rough mid-point. And most people rediscover the joy when they work past it. So, I’ll press ahead.

Decided to spend a week of vacation on the book to keep the momentum going, so I plan to write full time next week. It seems like the best opportunity to do this--it should get me past the rough spot and there might not be another chance to do this later in the year because the day job looks like it will have a busy summer, busy fall and hectic winter.

The plan is to take 4-5 days this week to work on the book full time. No family. No day job.

The goal:
1) Complete the rough draft.
2) Read-through and assess the whole book.
3) Identify major changes and gaps.
4) Start 1st draft.

This should position me to work the rest of the 1st draft in daily dribbles (the 1 & 2 hour writing sessions that can be squeezed out of any day).

Here are the vital statistics (from Sunday Jan 3rd):

Rough Draft 55593 words
1st Draft 22264 words
2nd Draft 15314 words

Total: 93171 words

And some stats on the support files:

Outline: 25898 words
Brainstorming: 22887 words

Continuous days writing: 137

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Status: January 4, 2009

Good in the sense I wrote a lot of new material. But the writing is dragging. This is Week 21 working on this book. That is longer than I expected the initial draft to take (I was thinking short book, ~16 weeks). I have lost my enthusiasm and I am starting to think more and more about revision and marketing.

Took two days off to work on a flash-fiction piece. Set in the same world, but exploring different characters. It goes to the writing exercise we do periodically. I’m curious to see how it is received.

Had one short story rejection come in. Not sure how the short fiction will turn out. I wrote and, more importantly, submitted a lot last year. With my head buried in the book like a big fat zombie tick, I’m not sure when or how much I will be able to focus on short fiction. Sigh.

Here are the vital statistics (from Sunday Jan 3rd):

Rough Draft 53659 words
1st Draft 22264 words
2nd Draft 15314 words

Total: 91237 words

And some stats on the support files:

Outline: 25898 words
Brainstorming: 22621 words

Continuous days writing: 130