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Archive for October, 2012

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A Few Tips On NANOWRIMO #2: Don’t Fear The Outline

Nano starts in two days people. Time to get your shit together.

There’s this debate that pops up every now and again about Pantsers, people who write by the seat of their pants as it were, and Plotters, people who outline before they start writing. At some point in the process you’re making shit up as you go, so I’ve never seen much difference in the end result. Whether you’re doing it at the front end or the back end doesn’t really change what you’re doing.

But it does change how fast you can do it.

Some people think of outlines as maps that show your waypoints, give you some direction. A good analogy, but that’s never really worked for me on a practical level.

Instead I like to think of an outline as a story about your story.

Here’s an example. Star Wars. It’s two hours long. There’s a lot that happens. Lots of characters and events and locations and epic battles with lightsabers and vroom whoosh bang boom boom boom KABLAM all over it, right? Have you seen the novelization? That fucker’s thick.

Now here’s Wikipedia’s synopsis of Star Wars.

The original trilogy begins 19 years later as Vader nears completion of the massive Death Star space station, which will allow the Empire to crush the Rebel Alliance, an organized resistance formed to combat Palpatine’s tyranny. Vader captures Princess Leia, who has stolen the plans to the Death Star and hidden them in the astromech droid R2-D2. R2, along with his protocol droid counterpart C-3PO, escapes to Tatooine. There, the droids are purchased by Luke Skywalker and his step-uncle and aunt. While Luke is cleaning R2, he accidentally triggers a message put into the droid by Leia, who asks for assistance from Obi-Wan. Luke later assists the droids in finding the Jedi Knight, who is now passing as an old hermit under the alias Ben Kenobi. When Luke asks about his father, Obi-Wan tells him that Anakin was a great Jedi who was betrayed and murdered by Vader.

Obi-Wan and Luke hire the smuggler Han Solo and his Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca to take them to Alderaan, Leia’s home world, which they eventually find has been destroyed by the Death Star. Once on board the space station, Obi-Wan allows himself to be killed during a lightsaber rematch with Vader; his sacrifice allows the group to escape with the plans that help the rebels destroy the Death Star. Luke himself fires the shot that destroys the deadly space station

Those two paragraphs are all you need to write your own take on Star Wars. How long do you think it took to write that compared to how long it took to write the script or the novel?

Sure, there’s a lot more to the story, but that comes out in the writing. The point of the outline is to help give you some plot structure, maybe some notes on character and why people are doing what they’re doing.

There’s a hell of a lot more that goes into a story beyond plot. Voice, style, metaphor, theme, monkeys, pathos, etc. Plot’s the most boring part of the whole thing. It’s important, sure, but it’s like a bundt pan when you’re baking a cake. You need it for structure but you ain’t gonna eat it.

How much or how little you put into an outline is up to you. I know people who write two paragraph synopses like the one above and they’re set. Others write 400 page epic outlines as bulleted items with charts and graphs and cork boards and colored index cards for each character, location and event that happens.

My outline for DEAD THINGS was 31 pages. My outline for KHAN OF MARS was 12 pages. Is that too long? Too short? Not for me it wasn’t. It got me everything I needed to be able to write those books.

Now my situation is probably a little different from yours. I had to turn those outlines in to my publisher. I wrote them for myself, and I’m glad I did it, but they were REQUIRED by the publisher. So if you want to do this shit professionally you’re not gonna dodge the outline bullet forever.

So great, now you got an outline. What do you do with it?

I use mine as a checklist. I do mine in Word and as I write the book I highlight each paragraph so I remember where I’ve been and what I’ve done without having to slog through 50 pages of prose. If you’re doing a bulleted list it’s easier, but my brain doesn’t really work that way.

Another thing I do is that if I make changes to the book that veer in another direction or decide something isn’t working and I need to make a change, I change the outline to match. To use that map analogy above if it doesn’t match the terrain it’s useless.

One more thing about is that since it’s mostly just condensed plot it’s good for finding plot holes. You don’t have wade through all that prose to figure out that the butler couldn’t have done it.

If you’re going into Nano cold and have only a bare idea of what you’re going to do for it I really recommend you start writing an outline. You don’t need to go crazy with it. Start with a one sentence description, even if it makes no sense to anyone but you. Then make it a paragraph. Then two. Then dig into those and make it five. And then, Voila! You have an outline.

Trust me on this. It’ll make you life easier.

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Just What Is A Good Story, Anyway?

There’s a lot of talk about getting published. Go to a conference, or hell, hang out on-line, and most of the writerly conversations are around that, or around marketing, branding, The Business. But, as has been pointed out a few times by folks like Chuck Wendig, nobody’s asking how to become a better story-teller.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. People are asking, and they are wondering. Just not the droves that are asking about getting an agent, or about self-publishing.

Case in point, someone asked me on Twitter the other week for tips on writing noir. And I sat there and stared at the question for a while and finally came back with, “Read a lot of it?” and then offered some authors who do it particularly well.

And that illustrates the problem. It isn’t necessarily that people aren’t curious, that they don’t want to know how to become better story-tellers, it’s that a good story is really fucking hard to quantify.

There’s a lot of nuts and bolts advice floating around and some of it’s really good. The aforementioned Mr. Wendig, for example. It’s in the trenches stuff. Real practical value on structure and plot and honing your craft.

It’s conflict boxes, Chekhov’s Gun, shit like that. Important stuff. Excellent stuff.

But how do you quantify sub-text? How do you measure metaphor?

The answer, of course, is that you don’t. You experience it, examine it, have your “I see what you did there” moment when it clicks. You want to know about sub-text you read Raymond Carver. You want to know about metaphor you read Tim O’Brien. There are no Metaphor Units, though I propose the Kil-O-Brien as a start. It’s based on a count of all the things they carried.

But then how do you translate that into useful advice? “Read a lot,” is of course the stock answer, but that’s, I don’t know, kind of a cop out. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like “Write what you know,” an empty, overly simplisitic platitude that doesn’t give you anything meaningful.

And maybe my advice will be, too. Because, you know, I have Opinions. But I hope it won’t be. Here it is.

Learn to tell a joke.

And even that suffers from the same problem, doesn’t it? I mean, how do you break that down beyond, “Go listen to a lot of them”?

But here’s the thing about a joke. It’s a story. Beginning, middle, end. Three acts, right there. It’s short, easy to remember and built in such a way that you can see its guts working the whole time. Like magic, it’s all based on mis-direction and subverting expectations. Only you get to the punchline you get to see how the trick gets done.

They’re like that “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” thing. Only substitute feet for shoes and it’s funny. And kinda gross.

Two guys walk into a bar. You think they’d have seen it.

***

“Would you hit a man with glasses?” “No, but I’ll hit him with a brick.”

***

Two guys are out hunting and get separated from their friends and pretty soon they’re lost. So they start shooting into the air hoping to get somebody’s attention and let them know where they are. They keep trying. Nothing happens. It’s getting dark. They’re getting worried. Finally one of them says, ‘Let’s try one more shot,” and the other says, ‘You sure? This is my last arrow.’

Are these good jokes? No. But they’re stories.

One of the things that I see in a lot of flash fiction is that there’s no actual story there. They’re just scenes. There’s no lead in. There’s no resolution. They don’t leave the reader asking a question. Why do you want to hit the guy with glasses? Why are you selling baby feet and can I use them as ear-warmers? That sort of thing.

These stories end being half-baked and another couple hundred words might have solved that problem.

The thing with a joke is you know right away if it worked. If you don’t have a punchline, or a decent lead-in it falls flat on its ass. And you can translate that understanding into longer pieces.

Guy goes to prison and he keeps hearing people yelling out random numbers in the middle of the night. ’27!’ ’33!’ ’92!’ And every time, people are laughing. He has no idea what’s going on. Asks a guy the next day who tells him, ‘Oh, they’re jokes. We’re not allowed to talk between cells but they can’t catch us if we’re quick. So we’ve all memorized these things and assigned them numbers,’ and then he gives the guy the list.

So that night he decides to give it a shot. Yells out ’87!’ Nothing. ’29!’ Crickets. ’102!’ Not even a polite cough. So the next day he finds his buddy and says, ‘Those were funny jokes, what the hell happened?’

‘Dude, your delivery sucks.’

And that’s a whole other problem.

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A Few Tips On NANOWRIMO #1: Yes, You’re Out Of Your Fucking Mind

November’s coming up and you know what that means. Hungover frat boys recovering from Oktoberfest celebrations insisting that they can’t find their lederhosen because they scored with a hot hausfrau, not because they were butt-chugging shots of Jaeger.

LIARS.

Anyway, it’s also the month of NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month, and a whole fuckton of you crazy bastards are going to try to squeeze out 50,000 words in 30 days.

That’s 1667 words a day. That’s missed meals. That’s pissed off spouses. That’s lost lunch hours. That’s people looking at you like you’re crazy when you tell them what you’re doing. That’s staring into your monitor late at night desperately trying to get ONE MORE FUCKING SENTENCE.

And just wait until Thanksgiving.

It’s not easy. It’s not simple. It might look like it, but believe me it’s not. You’ll find yourself obsessing over wordcount, plot, character, style. You’ll be freaking out about your deadline, hating yourself when you miss a day’s wordcount, loath the inexorable push of the calendar.

What the fuck are you thinking?

If that didn’t scare you off, congratulations. For good or ill you are my people.

Now embrace the crazy.

First, ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of it. What’s your goal here? To be able to say you did it? To challenge yourself? As a bet? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time? All valid reasons. Knowing what you’re hoping to accomplish with this little exercise can go a long way to cut down on some stress.

When I did it back in… 2002. Jesus. That long ago? Anyway, back when I did it I had one goal and that was to see if I could sit my ass down and do the work. I had never written anything longer than maybe 4K. It was not about quality and I knew it. It was all about seeing if I could do the work.

And on stress, don’t take it too seriously. You’re trying to cram 50K words into 30 days. You are not writing a masterpiece. If you happen to come out the other end with one, fantastic, but don’t assume you will and, this is the important thing, be okay with that.

It’s okay to stress a little. That’s normal. You’re stretching yourself. Even if you’ve done it before it’s a stretch. But be careful not to beat yourself up too much if you miss your goal.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you can belt out 6K a day and come out of it without carpal tunnel or believing that the imaginary people in your head are going to kill you for what you did to them in chapter 8, more power to you. Remember, Thanksgiving is at the end of the month and I guarantee at least half of you are going to hit that weekend, realize you’re really behind and lose your shit.

Don’t do that.  Try to get some buffer built in at the beginning of the month.  It’ll make your family gatherings a little less twitchy.

And last, this isn’t a competition. The only person you’re up against is yourself. Winning here is a binary. You either did it or you didn’t.

Good luck, folks. I’ll be talking about outlines later this week. Not that you need one, but it never hurts to have a plan.

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Free Books For Halloween

The weather’s turning, the leaves are falling, the hobos are being hunted by angry pumpkin elementals, their heads emptied out and stuffed with candles. That’s right, folks. Halloween’s just around the corner.

And how better to celebrate the creepy season than a free copy of the Halloween anthology DEADLY TREATS with my zombie short story WORLD’S GREATEST DAD?

Or maybe some tales of the Mad City with DON’T READ THIS BOOK that includes my story DON’T LOSE YOUR PATIENTS?

Or even, if you’re inclined to *ahem* “A head-shakingly perfect blend of zombie schlock, deadpan wit, startling profanity, desperate improvisation and inventive brilliance.” my novel CITY OF THE LOST?

Interested? I thought so. Here’s the deal.

Two things you gotta do. 1) Follow me on Twitter. My handle’s @sblackmoore. 2) Tell me you want in, either on Twitter or here in the comments. Either’s fine.

I’m running this contest from now until next Friday, the 19th. I’ll pick five people and those folks will either get a copy of DEADLY TREATS, DON’T LOSE YOUR PATIENTS or CITY OF THE LOST. Your choice. Paper or digital. ‘Cause I’m all 21st mother-fuckin’ century over here.

Now some caveats. Overseas shipping is an ass-kicker and digital isn’t always available in non-US countries for various stupid fucking reasons. And digital might not even be available for your device. So, this IS open to non-North America, BUT if you win and we can’t figure out how to get a book out to you, you’re shit outta luck. Believe me, I WANT to get a book to you, but time and space sometimes thwarts the best of intentions.

Do I think that’s gonna be a problem? No, but I want to put this out there to avoid potential disappointment.

Still here? Awesome.

DEADLY TREATS is chock full of Halloween goodness edited by Anne Frasier and filled with stories by the likes of Bill Cameron, Patricia Abbott, David Housewright, Kelly Lynn Parra, Julia Buckley and more. Some of them are scary, some of them are sad, not all of them are horror. But they’re all fun.

DON’T READ THIS BOOK is thirteen stories set in the Mad City, that twisted, shadow world that exists between spaces where the chronically Awake find themselves looking for their hopes, their dreams, their very souls. Edited by Chuck Wendig and including stories by Harry Connolly, Rich Dansky, Matt Forbeck, Laura Anne Gilman, Will Hindmarch, Mur Lafferty, Robin D. Laws, Ryan Macklin, C. E. Murphy, Josh Roby, Greg Stolze, Monica Valentinelli, and me.

Then there’s CITY OF THE LOST. Zombie noir. ‘Nuff said.

And since I’m in a Halloween frame of mind, might I direct you to a couple of free short stories right here on this website that you might be interested in?

DARK AS A DUNGEON – A somewhat Lovecraftian western set in a mining town where things go awful wrong a for a lawman just trying to do his job.

FIX – A short vampire tale set in the same world as my novels CITY OF THE LOST and DEAD THINGS.

So follow me on Twitter, sign up for the contest and five of you lucky folks will be gettin’ books toot-fuckin’-sweet.

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“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

I ran into this thing the other day talking about how skills trump passion in choosing a career. I’m not sure I completely buy the premise but I get what they’re talking about. But out of that, the thing that stuck out for me was this bit:

In a 2007 episode of the Charlie Rose show, Rose was interviewing the actor and comedian Steve Martin about his memoir Born Standing Up. They talked about the realities of Martin’s rise. In the last five minutes of the interview, Rose asks Martin his advice for aspiring performers.

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’ . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ “

And that got me thinking about writing, because, you know, most things do. I’m kind of a one-trick-pony that way.  There’s all this focus on money and marketing and jobs and money and agents and publishing and money and, well, money, that a lot gets lost. I’m not sure I’m even talking about quality so much as the need for a conversation about quality.

Here’s an example. Monsieur Chuck Wendig, he of the bearded visage and lack of pants, mentioned conversations he had at a recent conference where everyone asked about how to get an agent, editor, etc., but nobody asked how to write a good story.

That’s a problem.

We keep seeing news items like this one about how 16-year-old Emily Baker just got a book deal because of (not for – important distinction there) the fanfic she wrote about boy band One Direction. Congratulations to her, by the way. I have no idea if she’s any good. Presumably she’s good enough or her readers wouldn’t have gotten engaged enough with her story.

But whether she’s a good writer, or even a competent one isn’t where the focus is. We talk about the book deal. We talk about the numbers. We talk about fame and exposure and agents and marketing. We reduce the art of storytelling down to brutal numbers because that’s what you do in business.

But writing isn’t business. Really. Publishing is business. Writing is craft and art and voice and style. It’s emotion and timing, pace and plot. It’s not about the money and it can’t be about the money.

It has to be, as Mr. Martin has said, about being so good people take notice, whatever ‘good’ means. And it’s a word that means different things to different people. It’s elusive, sure, but not so undefinable that you can’t notice it when you see it. Kind of like porn that way.

I say this next bit not just to you reading this, whether you’re a new writer or a veteran or just like inside baseball conversations, but to myself as well. Because I’m just as guilty of it as the next guy.

Stop looking at numbers. Stop looking at the marketing and the promos. Stop looking at selling. Yes, there’s a time and a place for it and it’s important stuff and I’m about to embark on a blitz of it myself. But don’t do it so much that you forget why you started all this in the first place.

Focus instead on being so good they can’t ignore you.