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.