Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Novel Fifth

status: 20,000 words (a milestone!)

I always start a new work with a light heart. 'Bit of a lark,' I say. 'How hard can it be?' I say.

Of course, I always find out!

Those first few chapters roll off, and the going is easy. I feel like I've done so much, but that pride deflates when I realize that all my good work is only 2-3% of the finished novel. Urk.

In these early days I navigate by milestones. First five thousand. First ten. By the time I hit twenty, I've got a feel for the driving conflicts and the key players. It's shaping itself into a book.

20k is a very good day.

It also doesn't hurt that I spent the day at a Wildlife Park and wrote my thousand in about an hour and a half when I got home. The previous day's labor had taken six or seven hours for the same number of words.

Forty thousand tends to be pretty good too, but strangely, around the 50k mark, the milestones started to turn on me. I tend to think I should have gotten further by now, or feel like I'm too close to finished. What if the whole story's only 60k?!

It never is. By that point I know my characters, and can go deeper and deeper with them. I love to write tough, resourceful characters and aim them at each other. They never give up (especially the villains), and before I write 'The End' I can count on a lot more twists and turns than I had planned.

For now, the momentum's humming along. I'm excited to sit down in front of the keys every day, to find out a little more Baker and that daughter of his, about Sarah and her troubles, about how Michelle will deal with the problems I've handed her.

That's why I try to knock out the first draft fast as I can.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Where Do Stories Come From, part two

status: 19,ooo (every damn one of them like pulling teeth last night)

So I had this guy sitting in chains at the courthouse, awaiting transfer back to Parerua. Soon he'd be on the loose.

My fingers hit the keys. Would the annoying kid beside him end up a casualty or a reluctant sidekick? What would happen to the other prisoners who had court that day? How was he going to get out of the building?

What's this guy's name?

Sometimes the names are right there when I ask for them. Sometimes they're reluctant. I thought maybe he'd be 'So-and-so Lee', so that his nickname would be Stagger Lee ('cause as Nick Cave sang, 'he don't give a good God damn, not Stagger Lee').

Nope. turns out it's Baker. Okay. I can live with that.

I check back in with him every few scenes, see what he's up to. Turns out he's a LOT more resourceful than I would have thought. I have an inkling as to why, but I've been wrong before so I'll keep it to myself.

As I wrote those further scenes, it turned out that his goals were a bit more complex. And that he truly, madly, deeply loved the woman who double-crossed him and put him away. That he has a daughter, and she has her own agenda. That he's a LOT more resourceful than I would have thought. There's bound to be a reason for that.

A couple of the odd things I learned about him while writing, one was that his 'voice' was very much that of a crusty old man. He's been away a long time, and a lot of things are different now. It was so persistent, I went ahead and made him old. Like bald head and white beard, Father-Christmas-on-steroids old. It's weird. It works.

That meant going back through the earlier scenes and doing any necessary retouches. When you're clinging to ten or twelve thousand words, you hate to do any cutting at all, but cut I did. and put in more. It's one thing to take out extra story later, but the bits that just don't belong, they're wrong, and they can't be allowed.

Besides, it's an opportunity to write a little better, and know (or at least suspect - it may all yet change again) that these *new* bits surely fit in!

In a sidebar, yesterday was kind of writer's blocky, mostly because my sense of what-happens-next was horribly blunted. It was like, everyone would brush their teeth before bed, and I bet at least a few of them go home alone to watch TV. Uck.
I found the conflicts, focused on them and only them, and so the story flows. Just hits some debris once in a while.
Forgot to mention yesterday that another influence for the story came from an appearance in traffic court. (I mostly obey the road rules, but have, shall we say, a somewhat casual attitude to laws about displaying one sticker or another in my window. The car still starts without them, but the tickets are $200 a pop!) Anyway, I spent my morning in court, taking notes of course.
A fair few felons were in traffic court too, mostly arguing for or against having their fines turned into additional time served. Interesting in itself, but there were other things as well. The felons were kept in a lounge out in the hall and trasported by two bailiffs when it was their turn. The bailiffs were always alert and on top of their game. The prisoners appeared in court in civilian clothes pulled out of a goodwill box back at the prison, and they wore wrist manacles with about a foot and a half of chain between the bracelets.
A body could do a hell of a lot of damage with those, if they knew what they were doing.
And then one guy showed up wearing the wrist and ankle hobbles. I never did find out what he'd done, but he did get me thinking...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Where Do Stories Come From, Grandpa

status: 18000 words (still on track)

In Lisey's Story, Stephen King talks about writing being like finding a piece of colored string on the ground and following it to see where it goes. I like all of his writing metaphors: an archeological dig, sitting in a basement with a guy in a Hawaiian shirt, trying to attract a shy smelly animal.

Today I thought I'd tlak about some of my colored strings, and where they seem to be leading me.

The first thread that set my gears turning was a tragedy. A seventeen year old juvenile delinquent was beaten to death when shackled to a max-security offender in the back of a van. The private security company (mall cops) who handle prison transport got the forms wrong.

The second was the New Year's crime spree of a mad dog killer. An ex-boxer turned convicted killer lifts weights in prison for twelve years and becomes really quite scary. No one thinks to ask why he hasn't been showing up to meet with his parole officer for weeks. When the cops finally do knock on his door, they find half an arsenal. A body count follows.

I didn't notice that I was paying more attention to those news items than others. Not until the first frayed ends of a scene started playing in my head and wouldn't quit. A man sat on a bench down in the courthouse basement, near the parking garage. It's lunchtime, and the alert, capable bailiffs have handed him over to a couple of lax, disinterested mall cops. The kid next to him keeps chattering away, nervous and annoying.

The man's eyes stay on the guards.

Of course, nothing stays the same. Tomorrow I'll post on how that soon-to-be-escaped felon is changing as I write.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Midnight in Gethsemane

status: 16,200 words (lost time made up for)

Doubt seems to be the topic going around. No wonder. The work is mentally and emotionally grueling, the rewards scant or nonexistent, and to friends and loved ones it looks like we're just sitting on our asses. On a bad day, this path can look long and cold and lonely and hard: forever uphill under a stormy sky, paved with the bones of seekers who failed before you and the painful knowledge that you were a fool to even try.

When it gets that bad, read the last two words of my blog title. Then sit down and write.

To keep it from getting that bad, here are a few mental tricks I've used to keep the demons from my door. Just little things I tell myself when doubt wants to nibble at the edges.

1. Doubt is a liar. One thing I notice reading biographies is how many truly great people went through periods of intense doubt and self-examination. Sometimes while in the middle of their best work.

2. Doubt is part of any process. It's the flip side of ambition. Everyone hoping to achieve anything worthwhile will spend a few long dark nights in Gethsemane.

3. Doubt might be right. This is a great way to keep it from gnawing deeper until it hits bone. Admit your doubts might (*might*) be valid. I do this to ways. One is almost a mantra for me, has been since I was a little shaver with a sketchbook and a dream.

I may not be the most talented, but no one will work harder.

Because the fact is, hard work will often take you places where lazy talents will never reach. And hard work *with* talent. Sky's the limit. I can't control my talent (and don't always believe I have any), but I can control my work.

The other tool is my deadline. I'm going to write ten novels. (This one is number four.) If I can't get published in ten novels, I'm out. I'll write for fun, and keep up the good work with the graphic novels (where my scribbling makes up for any soft spots in the words), but that's it.

Of course, I got the fantastic Agent Anne with number three, and she's pretty sure POISON DOOR has what it takes. But if she's wrong, the new book's coming.

And lastly...

4. Can you come back later? I'm busy writing just now.

That one's my favorite.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Regular Irregularity - Feel the Love

status: 14,600

You might have noticed that I only got 600 words written yesterday. Some drawings I needed to finish took longer than I thought, and one of my darling fiance's best friends rolled into town, so it was dinner and pool in the evening. Stuff happens.

Sometimes stuff doesn't happen at all. There've been a couple of days in the two weeks since I started where I just couldn't write more than three or four hundred words. The story wasn't talking to me.

But I still got to Day 14 on 14,ooo words. And I'll get to the end of the first draft in about three months. There are two important secrets to actually finishing any endeavor as long as a novel. One is to leave the bad days behind you. So you did nothing yesterday. So what? Don't lose today's progress beating yourself up about it.

The other secret is kind of the opposite. Don't accept slack. You've got to care enough about the work to commit to it. None of us can expect fame or fortune. It'd be nice, but even making a living is a tough slog in the creative industries. There are plenty of fun and wonderful things to do with our leisure time that don't involve sitting with a keyboard or goose quill pen or whatever. You've got to love the work enough to make it a priority.

Couple of years back, I tried to take up the guitar. I practiced scales and chords, even got to the point where I could do a half-decent blues walk and play a couple of songs. But the effort fizzled. there were novels to write and comics to draw, a living to be made and a lovely young lady (the Tiny Dynamo, since she doesn't want me naming her here) whose company I enjoyed. There was a life to be lived, and I just didn't love the guitar enough to put the work in.

But when the novel goes hot, the action's coming fast and the words are tumbling over me spilling out, I'll stop everything else and write for fourteen, fifteen hours a day.

It's all about the love...

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Status: 14,ooo words.

I'm one lucky bastard. My 'day job' is as an artist. I draw comics, do caricatures, storyboard low-budget movies and do the odd tattoo. Variety pays the bills. There are no carpet-walled cubicles in my life, nor hot grills, cash registers, paper hats or deep fryers. (Actually, McDonalds wouldn't have me: too many tattoos. I'm desolate.) I'm not rich, but I don't know what I'd do differently if I was. It's a happy, happy feeling.

When I'm at 'work', I sketch. I'm a scribbly artist, laying down lots and lots of little looping strokes with my trusty blue pencil until the shape of the thing comes out. By then my hand has a feel for the line, so that when I switch over to the sharpened number two pencil that single best line flows right on out there.

And for comics or tattoos, the pencil line itself is just a stage. The 'real' line is ink: spare, bare and elegant.

I write the same way. This first draft is my blue pencil sketch. There are lots and lots of lines I won't use, and I keep going back to the early chapters as new aspects of the story reveal themselves. This used to be a pain in the ass, but then I found Rough Draft, a thing of beauty and grace.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Conflict & Lying Pipe

status: 11,600 and climbing

In the last post I mentioned in passing that every scene I write has conflict at its heart. I didn't invent this guideline, just found it somewhere and like any good magpie, added it to my box of tricks.

"Laying pipe" is a TV writer term for putting unrealistic dialogue in a character's mouth to get the exposition out there. You know: "Wow, I can't believe we're going to be selling lemonade at the State Fair." Like the guy standing at the booth didn't know how he got there.

It's not that Fred and Daphne need Velma to tell them where they're going (Fred's doing the driving, after all); it's that Velma needs to tell us.

TV can maybe be forgiven for laying pipe. They've got 22 or 48 minutes to tell a story, and the less time wasted getting the setting down the better. Pipe-laying is an artificial mannerism that TV audiences have learned to overlook. In its way, a half hour or hour of TV is as strictly mannered a performance as Kabuki or opera.

Or professional wrestling or Springer.

(Do they still do Springer in the US? It's been so long since I've lived there that Clinton was president at the time!)

Anyway, TV writers, pipe away. Have at it. We novelists aren't so lucky. Or so cursed.

A novel is free of those weird time constraints. We can let a story develop more organically. That's a strength that can also be a weakness.

One pitfall I have to watch out for in my work is the rambling. I write by the seat of my pants and explore the characters as I go. It's tempting to do pages and pages of two guys in a car talking about stuff, that sort of thing. It goes quick and easy, and I can point to a big old word count and pretend I'm doing great.

Thing is, it's not progress. These guys have talked in the car for six pages and the story's gone NOWHERE.

Cut, cut, cut.

Here's the other big pitfall for me: Put those same two guys back in the car, still shooting the shit, but now they're also dropping little bits of information, telling the reader what's what. The dialogue flows along, and the story's moving, right? I mean, there they are, telling us all this useful stuff.

Problem is, it creaks. These days we call it ASYKB (short for As-you-know-Bob), and the device is so old it needed oiling back in Grandpa's day (and one of my Grandfathers was born in the 1880's, about the last time this was acceptable). Back when he was a baby it was still the norm for two servants to appear at the start of the story and lay pipe all over the place as part of a 'conversation'.

I won't say I never do it, but every time I do, it's a failure. The key to success?


Every scene where a character appears - major or minor - that character wants something they're not immediately able to get. It can be big or small, but it needs a goal and an obstacle, preferably another character with a cross-purpose.

For instance, last night Sarah, my hero, needed to find out that the villain had robbed an armored car (There are fuck-all firearms here in New Zealand, except in the hands of farmers and criminals. The dramatic possibilities abound).

I could have had Sarah show up and look siliently at the scene, a little internal monologue dropping the facts on us, and out. Dead boring. even if she stands in some rain or fog or something.

I could have had her ask a uniform on the scene. He could give her the facts, ma'am.


What I did was have another detective (Mark) catch the call for the armored car and bring Sarah in when the connection was made to her case. This other detective is a muscly ex-jock with a bit of a Short Man Complex. He acts cocky to get the world to overlook his height.

Sarah's five inches taller with a higher close-rate. Mark's desire to be the big man has an obstacle in its way, and will have every time these two meet. He can't just give up and be humble around Sarah, so he's always looking for ways to one-up her.

Sarah's a woman in a man's world, and a misfit anywhere. If she gives these boys an inch, they'll walk all over her. She demands, and gets, respect. No way Sarah's going to let Mark act like something he's not.

These two like each other, but that tension is there in every encounter. And their gamesmanship makes it easy to drop in a few facts abot an armored car robbery without anyone yawning.

At least, it will when it's gone through a couple of edits. At this stage in the game, I'm just spewing the scenes out as fast as I can type them. Later, I'll go back and look at what I've done, pick out themes and symbols, decide what to amplify and what to drop. Right now, I need to turn off all of my inner critics and just GO!!!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Character Genesis - Tommy Knowles

Status: broke the 10,000 mark last night.

I thought my whole character/plot thing might be easier to understand if I gave an example.

Tommy is the primary bad guy in POISON DOOR. He's one nasty, warped, twisted piece of work, but he didn't start out that way.

Originally, PD was going to be a noir study of two bent cops trying to break loose from the drug lord who'd come to own their souls. Except that one of my cops just... (Shatner voice) simply... refused... to stay... BENT. Which, as they say, is another story.

Point being, Tommy was in there from the beginning.

He was always a drug lord involved in a turf war, always proud of having his hooks in two of New Zealand's finest, and always British.

And he had to be an asshole. A hero's only as big as the villain he faces (which is why Superman vs. a purse snatcher is dull as dishwater), and I needed Tommy to be really, really nasty. Not superhuman, just foul. My hero is Sarah Crane, a pretty dark piece of work herself and someone who could just as easily show up as a villain in a different story. Part of Tommy's job is making us glad she's on our side. Nuff said.

Tommy started out very slick and polished. A Mephistopholean puppet master.

Cardboard. Yawn.

But through conflict, his character deepened. Every scene I write puts the viewpoint character in conflict. Even (especially) if the point is to show a bit of that character's personality, it's going to come out by giving them an objective and putting something or someone in its way. I'll write more about that tomorrow or the next day.

I realized that what Tommy wanted was safety. Everything he did, from his Big Plan to his smallest action, was an attempt to feel untouchable, to feel safe. He was an orphan, a street kid (one of several in this book). Crime was a way to make himself part of the scary guys on the street, the ones no one wanted to fuck with.

Except of course that those guys are like sharks. They'll feed on each other the minute they smell blood in the water. A footsoldier's life was worthless. Tommy's only way out was up.

So he rose. Every move was savage and treacherous, and to keep the ones underneath him from doing the same to him, Tommy had to keep them terrified.

Tommy started to get interesting.

His expensive suits and toys were a sham. Like his savagery, they were a way of trying to fool the world, to draw attention from the frightened little kid nobody wanted.

And with no one he could fully trust, with his one big chance to maybe this time finally grow so big his enemies will never get him, Tommy did something wildly important to the book, something that threw my feeble outline out the window.

He decided he had to stay awake.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Plot and Character

Status: 8500 words and counting

There's been a lot of talk lately at CS Harris and Razored Zen about plotting and character. Lately, I'm wondering if there's much of a difference.

The more I write, the more I come to suspect I'm a definite seat-of-the-pantser when it comes to plot. For me, there was a lot of truth in Stephen King's comment that writing is like finding a half-buried piece of colored string and following it to see where it ends. His archeaological metaphors also resonate, the point being that for me stories are things unearthed, discovered.

Which brings me to character. My more successful plots, such as they are, are where I take some characters and put them on a collision course. Viola, plot.

I'm not the first to work this way, and I won't be the last. It's just what works for me.

But not only is plot a thing discovered in my work, so is character. I've seen all the worksheets and the like, the advice about knowing what your characters had for breakfast that morning and what their star sign is. They probably work for some people. For me... meh.

I get to know my characters a little at a time, same as my friends. I'm not an 'instant BFF' kinda guy, and I'm not an instant intimacy kind of writer. By the end of the book I know my characters pretty damn well (Sarah had an English muffin and juice for breakfast. Tommy had a fistful of Benzydrine.), but in these early days they don't show all of themselves to me, and the sides they show aren't always entirely truthful.

Sometimes the characters send me off in the wrong directions, but not often. Mostly, it's me and my damn ego trying to force them in directions they don't want to go. I can be pretty damn stubborn, so several thousand words might get written before I figure it out and the story begins to flow again.

My record is forty-eight thousand. Yup. 48,000 words spent barking up the wrong tree, my hero fighting me all the way. It happens.

More often, the characters will reveal something late in the book that means going back and setting it up earlier on. How early depends on how important.

So right now I'm in the honeymoon phase. It's flowing, everything new and shiny. A month or two down the road, it's going to get rough. They'll quit talking. Or I'll quit listening. The work will slow to a crawl.

But I will finish. I learned a lot of life's lessons in my messed-up youth, and probably one of the most valuable was: You can't quit just because you're being punched in the face. In fact, that's probably the worst time possible to give up. So I know going into this that the going will likely get rough, but the book'll get done anyway.

If history repeats, I'll likely end up with 120k words or so and then trim down. POISON DOOR ran 140k before I typed 'the end'. By the time I was ready to show it to an agent, the ms came in at a lean mean 88,000.

That one's going out to editors now-ish at 90,000 words. Agent Anne assures me that the extra weight is fighting muscle, not an ounce of flab.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Back in the Saddle Again

So I'm writing again.

After five graphic novels and three novels, you'd think I'd be prepared for all that a new book involves. And maybe I am, enough to blog about the process while I'm going through it, anyway.

Writing a book is an emotional rollercoaster. I know I'm in for at least a few long dark nights of the soul, and a moment or two where I ring the sweetest bell in the universe. I've done it often enough to know that the only real changes are the insecurities involved.

The good days, it's like being master of the universe. The bad, well, nobody likes the bad ones.

My first book (an out-of-print graphic novel called Leather Tales), I had to deal with can-I-even-finish-something-so-long. Then for a while, it was about refining the process. Then I turned to novels and had to face what-if-it's-only-my-drawing, what-if-my-writing's-no-good.

That first 'real' novel wasn't bad. Wasn't great, either, and the sad fact is that not bad isn't good enough for a new writer to break in. So in the drawer it went and back through the long ride I went with the second novel.

It was worse than the first. There were bits and pieces that sang, but that's a bit like Frankenstein pointing out the good job he did with the monster's ears. So in the drawer it went, and all through the third novel I had to wrestle with maybe-I'm-really-not-cut-out-for-this.

Well, that one was good. At least, I thought so. My brand new agent, Anne Hawkins at JHA Literary, thinks so too. I'll let you know how things go with that one on this blog too.

So here I am, back in the saddle again, this time with what-is-that-one-was-a-one-off.

My most effective technique for beating down those insecurities is something I call 'maybe, come back later.'

For instance, back in the beginning when I worried about even finishing the first book, I'd tell those worrying voices, "Maybe you're right, but I'm doing this page now. Come back later." When I was doing my first novel and worrying that I was an art guy getting ahead of himself I'd say, "Maybe, but if nothing else this'll be a good script for another graphic novel."

Now when I'm tempted to waste time worrying about making lightning strike twice I say, "Maybe this one won't be up to snuff, but in that case I'll write another one."

One advantage of experience is knowing that I'll look back on the finished work and have no idea which days were good ones, and which bad.

And the more I do, the better I'll get.