Category Archives: Learning

The Circus Won’t Have Me (I Can’t Juggle).

Ahem! So it’s July. My last entry was in May. Glad to see I’m keeping on top of this blog thing!
The good news about the delay between posts is that I’ve been writing, and I’ve learned something.

There are writers out there who can write multiple stories at the same time, and there are those who can’t. At present I firmly reside in the realm of Nope! Can’t do it! I’ve tried and it’s been an ongoing disaster that I’ve only recently started to dig myself out of.

Now, when I say “write” I do mean exactly that. I have no trouble writing one story and revising or outlining another. But if I try to actually write two stories at once? Catastrophe! Disaster! Calamity! Cataclysm! Armageddon! You get the picture. We’re talking problems of the Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Steve Buscemi together on a rocket ship proportions.

I’ve been writing an Alt History/Fantasy since October of last year. I continued working on it, albeit at a slower pace, through Pitch Madness, without a hitch. I discussed where things started to get out of hand in April. Since that time I’ve actually been writing fairly consistently at least 300 words a day, 5 days a week. Not a great pace, but the habit is back, and that’s great.

I’ve had a few incredible story ideas sneak up on me, as they tend to, while I got my groove back. That’s great right? Awesome story ideas that just keep coming? What’s there to complain about? Well, Writer’s Block has never been a worry for me. I doubt I’ll ever have a shortage of ideas. I worry more about a shortage of time. If they keep coming I may never have enough time to write them all in the manner they deserve.

So, those incredible story ideas. Yeah. I couldn’t wait. I dug into one pretty heavily (a sci-fi, a genre I love and have wanted to sink my teeth into), and it consumed me. I wrote a barebones outline, then dug into a few test scenes and character spots. I really love the feel and scope of it. I was really rolling with it, at least until I hit the first plot hole in the outline.

I can handle that just fine normally by digging in and getting my hands dirty in the muck. But I had another story sitting around 40K words in that I could just jump over to and work on right? Lots of writers do it! It couldn’t be that hard… What’s the worst that could happen?

Well. I can tell you what the worst that could happen was: I’d lost the feel of the Alt History/Fantasy and couldn’t keep the headspace required for the sci-fi and a new cast of vastly different characters. I hit a hard wall and lost momentum on TWO stories.

 It was a long slow road to sort myself out. I went back to the beginning of the story and worked through what I’d written from the start. Performing a mini-revision on a third of a story isn’t something I ever wanted to do (especially considering the mental anguish dwelling on my early drafts causes me), but it was exactly what I needed.

So, for the time being I’m writing exclusively on the Alt History/Fantasy and only jotting outline notes on anything else.

I know writing multiple stories at once is certainly possible, and I might be able to do it someday. I’m nowhere near there yet.

Lesson learned.

– Alex

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Filed under Ego, Genre, Learning, Outline Writing, Revision, Voice

The Shatner Comma

As anyone who’s ever read my writing pre-revision (or even after 3-4 passes of my own) can attest: I have a serious problem with Shatner Commas.

Let me explain first what a Shatner Comma is, and second, why I have such a problem with them.

Shatner Comma (n): Improperly placed commas that serve no grammatical purpose and thwart the rules of proper punctuation. They instruct the reader to take unnatural and illogical pauses, much in the way William Shatner so famously delivered his lines in Star Trek (TOS).

Why do I have such a problem with them? Because I was instructed (as were most people) to put commas where I would naturally pause in speech. That’s right, I pause frequently and illogically in my regular everyday speech.  In my case it isn’t something I do to create a sense of drama. As best I can tell the problem traces back to my childhood stutter.

To be clear, my stutter wasn’t as horrible as in The King’s Speech, and I wasn’t endlessly teased for it (though I was dreadfully self-conscious about it).

I reminisced about it recently with my grandmother and she recalled that even at the age of 7 I worked endlessly to eliminate it. I’d sit playing on her living room floor reciting and repeating any sentence or word that I’d stuttered on until I had it silky smooth, at least so far as the stutters were concerned.

In their place came the pauses. To give my brain time to work around the hitch I think I subconsciously inserted a pause. That pause lingers to this day.

I spent many a Saturday morning on that same floor at my grandmother’s watching re-runs of Star Trek:TOS, so maybe a bit of Shatner’s delayed speech and odd timing crept in as well. We’ll never know.

With the help of my Critique Partners and a LOT of hard work I’m edging towards eliminating reducing the Shatner Comma from my writing, but I can make no guarantees. As for the pause in my speech? It lingers to this day though I’m working to lessen it now that I’m fully aware of it. And it wasn’t a cure-all for my stutter, which can still be found in diminished capacity any time I get overly excited about something.

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Filed under Grammar/Spelling, Learning, Real Life™, Revision, TV/Movies

Don’t Ever Stop!

So… This little thing called PitchWars happened. It’s what triggered this particular post, but it’s not what this post is about so I’ll cover it very briefly.

It’s a contest where writers submit their first ~250 words and a Query to the four mentors of their choice and hope to get selected. In short (because I’m rubbish at being brief) I was selected by the Awefantabulous Renee Ahdieh.

Renee is exactly what I want and more importantly need in a mentor. Her feedback has helped me add layers of depth to CROW’S BLOOD that I knew were missing, I just couldn’t see where. I’ve learned some of my pet phrases, identified some comma issues I have, and so much more, and I’ve exterminated them with prejudice.

Anyway!

Seven weeks later, our part in PitchWars wrapped on January 22nd as it went to the Agent Round. The first 250 words were posted with a 35 word pitch (here in case you’re interested), in hopes of Agents commenting and making requests.

It’s those requests that bring me to the point of this post. I had 0 requests. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Let me tell you a bit about how this little writer’s ego works: I’m a brash, cocky, confident bastard. Except when I’m not, which is often. The key is that I try not to let that side show to the world at large too much. The only person who sees that side of me most often (my wife) does a great job of propping me up so I can continue being the confident bastard that I am.

I’d be lying if I said getting zero requests didn’t sting. It cut pretty deep. Those are my words! Right there, with that zero looking me in the eye, I could have quit. Packed it all in and reclaimed my TV and video games. I could have given up the dream and driven my wonderful wife insane.

I could have listened to the mean voice in the back of my head that kept whispering “Zero, that’s how many people give a damn about your words. That’s what they’re worth. That’s what your worth. Give it up. Go home. Loser!

I’ve heard that voice before. That’s the voice that comes around any time I put myself out there, whether I’m public speaking, writing, tweeting, or posting on my blog. I don’t like that voice. I made the decision long ago not to listen to that voice. That voice is an asshole. The things it says aren’t true and are designed to cut us where it hurts the most. That voice is borne of fear.

We all have that voice. The difference between those who go on and those who fold isn’t a matter of skill, or worth, or ego. It’s a matter of will.

So here’s what I have to say, not only to those who didn’t get requests in PitchWars, but to those who have ever queried, or submitted, or done anything that brought around that voice:

Don’t. Ever. Stop.

Do what you love, whether it’s writing, drawing, dancing, singing, building life-size models of X-Wings out of Lego, whatever it is, as long as you love it (and it doesn’t hurt anything).

As for PitchWars… Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! I’ve learned so much, and met so many wonderful, dedicated, and helpful people.

Until next time, I’m going to go write and revise, because that’s what I do, and I love doing it.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” – The Bene Gesserit

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Filed under Agent, BookB, Character, Contest, Critique, deadlines, Editor, Ego, family, Feedback, Grammar/Spelling, Learning, MacBook Pro, Motivation, Pitch, Query, Revision, Twitter, Validation

An Open Letter to all PitchWars Mentors and Mentees (from a Mentee)

For the past few years Brenda Drake has run a crazy level contest (over 2,700 submissions/675 entrants)  on her blog called PitchWars. Let me just steal some words from her description:

Pitch Wars is a contest where published/agented authors, editors, or interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions to shine it up for agents. The mentors also critique the writer’s pitch to get it ready for the agent round. Writers send applications (query and first page of manuscript) to the four mentors that best fit their work. The mentors then read all their applications and choose the writer they want to mentor for the next five weeks. Then we hold an agent round with over a dozen agents making requests.

Sounds pretty awesome doesn’t it? Well, as someone who was cherry-picked by a ninja-Mentor this year (the AMAZING Renee Ahdieh) with CROW’S BLOOD, I can confirm that it most definitely is. I’m hard at work based on her editorial/critique notes. It’s keeping me quite busy.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a LOT of Mentors tweeting and commenting that they hope their Mentees don’t hate them for being too harsh or nit-picky with their notes. I have a single word response to that: Impossible!

So, Mentors:

First: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I say that from the bottom of my heart. Even if you’re not my Mentor and we’re technically competing against each other: Thank you! You’re awesome, amazing, and wonderful people to be doing what you’re doing.

Now, onto the rest of it.

Don’t pull your punches! We understand that they’re thrown with the best intentions (ok, so maybe that’s not the greatest metaphor). Keep giving it to us straight and professional, we can handle it. We’re not made of fine gossamer glass.

You have to trust that we know our work isn’t perfect, or we wouldn’t have entered PitchWars in the first place. Moreover we know that you know our work isn’t perfect. You got a look at it before you picked us. In many cases you saw more than the 5-page sample from the original submission.

You’re giving your time and effort, not to mention expertise and insider knowledge to help us get our work into the best shape possible in a limited window of time. There isn’t time to pussy-foot around playing nice. We need to get the job done.

On the flip-side: Mentees:

First: Congratulations, you were selected by a Mentor as either a primary or an alternate. That means you’ve got some chops. Take a few moments, pat yourself on the back, and inflate your ego.

Done? Good. There’s a lot of work to do.

There’s a certain level of trust every Mentee should be bringing to the table. Trust that we’re in good hands and that every note that comes across that table is an effort by our Mentor to improve our work.

That said, the bulk of the hard work should fall on our shoulders. It’s our book. This is our shot. We can’t afford to miss it. Every last one of us should be taking this opportunity and holding on to it, squeezing it for all it’s worth to get at the soft golden centre.

If your mentor gives you some hard truths that’s a good thing, they’re paying attention. We all have our natural talents, those bits of writing that just flow, those aspects of the work that we could sink ourselves into for days (plotting, dialog, world building, description, etc.). But we all have our weaknesses that we can only compensate for with craft (Shatner Commas, making that character that we know inside and out feel real, punctuation in general >.<).

Craft = Work. In many cases Craft = Hard Work. That hard work is why you’re here. If your writing was perfect you wouldn’t need a Mentor. So if your Mentor shines a light on the rust and broken bits of your story, don’t complain.

Roll up your sleeves. It’s time to get to work.

-Alex

P.S. Renee has been fantastically professional, if the other Mentors are half as good as she is there’s going to be one hell of a fine showing at the Agent round.

P.P.S. I’m aware I could use the word protege, but Mentee is a word, regardless of what my browser, word processor, or operating system say. There are many reputable sources.

P.P.P.S. At some point we need to have a long talk about split infinitives.

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Filed under Contest, Critique, deadlines, Editor, Ego, Grammar/Spelling, Learning, Pitch, Query, Revision, Validation

My NaNoWriMo Survival Kit or How I Won and Didn’t Lose My Mind

I promised this at the beginning of the month: A list of the tools and tricks I use to survive (and win, 3 years in a row) NaNoWriMo.

I want to be perfectly clear, I don’t work for any of the following (except perhaps the last), and I don’t make any money off promoting their products. They’re simply things that have become an essential and integral part of being able to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Could I do it without them? Sure. I absolutely could (except again, the last). I won my first year of NaNo using MS Word and nothing else. But I’ve built this arsenal and I intent to continue using it as I work to build and perfect my craft.

So here it is.

Literature & Latte‘s Scrivener and Scapple
I used Scrivener during NaNo last year, in fact I learned Scrivener during NaNo last year. It’s an incredibly robust piece of writing software that I now do 95% of all my writing in (even the technical documents I often write for work).

It has an easy to grasp interface with plenty of places for notes, synopsis, and tags, that all feeds into a neat little corkboard interface you can use to shift scenes about. It’s robust built-in tool-set can be overwhelming if you just dive in and try to use it all at once. Take some time and do the tutorials, and always remember: You don’t have to use EVERY feature. Use what works for you.

Just a note on Scrivener, the Manuscript Target display loses count somehow and will be short on words if you leave it open all the time. Use the “Project=>Project Statistics” count for a closer idea, it will also update the Manuscript Target count.

Scapple is new for me this year (it’s a fairly new product). Where Scrivener is robust and complex, Scapple is stark and simple. It’s a free-form mind-mapping tool that I’ve started to use for outlining (and taking notes at work…). I’m positive I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what Scapple can do.

Nuance Mobile‘s Swype for Android with Dragon Dictation
If it weren’t for this software I’m positive I would have lost my mind. I spend ~3 hours a day, 4 days a week commuting from my day job. That’s 12 hours of potential writing time I waste in my car. At the same time, driving is boring, which also makes it one of the best times to have epiphanies about plot points, scenes, and character interactions.

Before using the Dragon Dictation piece of Swype I would do my best to remember all the little ideas I had while driving, and I’d inevitably fail.

That said, Dragon Dictation is FAR from perfect in a car with a great deal of road noise (I drive a 2012 Civic that I’m positive is made out of aluminium foil). Not to mention it might be less than optimal that I’m dealing with a Hidden History/Fantasy story with words that people just don’t use on a daily basis.

Still, even with the clean-up I had to do on what it scratched out for me, it was a great help in not losing my mind.

Mur Lafferty‘s I Should Be Writing NaNoWriMo Specials
I listen to the ISBW Podcast regularly (well, as regularly as Mur gets them out there, but she’s a busy writerly type person, with books coming out and deadlines and whatnot so I harbour no ill will). This year she’s done a series of podcasts dedicated solely to NaNoWriMo. I found them to be a nice break, and at times a good reminder that other people suffer from the same problems and blocks I do while writing.

Clementine Player’s “Rain” Extra.
This one’s a little different. On my Mac I use Clementine Player instead of iTunes, mainly because iTunes doesn’t support FLAC or some of the formats I’ve purchased or ripped music into. I write in a room adjacent to where the rest of my family watches TV, and frankly, I think they’re all going deaf.

Sometimes if I’m writing something challenging where I need to concentrate the sounds from the TV just don’t help. I need something without words to distract me and send me off on tangents. Sometimes that means classical music, instrumental, or even house/club/trance/techno.

Then there are the times where even having something with a regular beat, or discernible patterns causes problems. That’s where the “Rain” feature under “Extras” comes in. It’s a generated thunderstorm, where the thunder and rain patterns are random and non-repeating. It’s perfect.

ZeFrank‘s “An Invocation for Beginnings”
If you ever needed a kick in the pants to get something started, whether it’s the project on the whole, writing a particular scene, or just getting your butt in the chair, Ze’s Invocation is just what the doctor ordered.

I listen to it when I start out. I listen to it when I hit a wall. I listen to it when I just don’t feel like writing. It hasn’t failed me yet.

My Wife
She holds all the loose pieces on that seem ready to fly off at any given moment. Not only does she give me the time (time she loses) to write, she supplies encouragement and support, and most important of all, she sometimes even brings me caffeine!

She tolerates my cranky moods when things are going well. She kicks me in the ass when I whine too much. And she doesn’t make me sleep on the couch if I’m up ’til 1am “just finishing one more paragraph”.

Out of all the things that make winning NaNo possible, she’s the one I couldn’t do it without. Oh… and a word processor, because writing 50,000 words out by hand or on a typewriter would suck.

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Filed under 50K, Learning, MacBook Pro, NaNoWriMo, Real Life™, Scrivener, Word Count

NaNoWriMo 2013 Mid-Way Update.

This is a few days late. It was written on the 15th but I started to fall asleep at the keyboard before publishing (oops). I’ve gone through and updated some of the numbers to match the new publish date of the 17th.

We’re half-way through NaNoWriMo for those of you who are doing it with me. I’m a few hundred words behind pace (Update: I’ve since caught up), which is an achievement considering how quickly I got behind at the beginning of the month.
As I noted in my last blog update, this year’s NaNo is a real experiment for me, and it created some interesting challenges.
First: It’s a totally new story, not another book in the story that I’ve already written. As a result, my outline was sparse and my sense of characters very light. I’ve stated before that I’m an agile outliner, allowing for vast and sweeping changes to a relatively detailed outline. This time around the outline is a bare-bones skeleton, and I’m doing a fair bit more seat-of-the-pants than I’m used to. Revisions should be fun.
Second: It’s a historical urban fantasy in a relatively well-documented place, in a relatively well-documented period, with a protagonist from an incredibly well-documented family. Take all these knowns and start adding in fantasy elements of the secret-history type. It’s a bit of a nightmare and I spent the first week fact-checking everything. That certainly didn’t help my word-count. I’ve learned to let more go and use notes to myself to fill in details later.
Third: I’m writing in first person past tense. Past tense? Easy enough. First person? That was a hell of a learning curve. We speak and live our lives in first person all the time (unless you’re one of those twonks who refers to themselves in third person). It should be easy, but when you’re trying to write a compelling story from the perspective of a person that doesn’t exist outside of your head. Plus there’s a lot of I’s and Me’s and We’s in there and you can’t start every sentence with a first person pronoun or it gets old fast.
All told I’m feeling good about the story and making good time. I still struggle with First Person POV from time to time, and get lost in research over the smallest things (oh, this will just take a minute), but I’m learning, and making good progress.
I have another blog post that I’m working on for the end of the month covering all the various tools (such as Scrivener) and tricks (such as speech-to-text for notes) I’ve used this month, as my toolset is a bit different than the previous two years.
I want to give a shout out to my NaNo Writing Buddies who have already completed NaNo (well ahead of schedule):
Jason Cantrell: 90,913!
Angi Nicole: 63,975!
GypsyLuc: 61,622!
HeatherxMarie: 52,737!
Scarlett9284: 50,282!
And last but not least, my brother Cysec: with 50,355 words, and completed NaNo for the first time this year (and also early).

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Filed under deadlines, Discovery Writing, Learning, NaNoWriMo, Outline Writing, Research, Revision, Scrivener, Viewpoint, Word Count, World Building

Circling, Spinning, Twisting, Turning.

And that’s just my stomach!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

You see, I finished CROW’S BLOOD and started querying, which is no small task on it’s own.

Researching Agents:
There are plenty of websites (such as QueryTracker) to find out the basics about agents, what they represent, who they represent, what their query guidelines are, etc. But the best source is always going to be the agent’s website. It’s maintained by them (or someone on staff) and they direct what goes onto it. It also doesn’t hurt to dig through their trash (I’m kidding, don’t dig through their trash!).

It goes beyond just finding the agents that represent what you want to publish though. It’s important to find an agent that fits YOU. They don’t represent your book (ok, some do), the best agents (in my opinion) represent their authors and their authors’ careers.

On Querying:
It’s incredible how much time agonizing over and rewriting a single sentence in your query letter can be. I mean, it has to be perfect. Take that and multiply it by the number of personalized sentences, then the number of agents I queried and that’s a LOT of time!

Then there’s the matter of following submission guidelines. Beyond the query letter itself, and doing research on what the agents had for breakfast the last six days running (research is important) following the submission guidelines is key. If you don’t submit your query, pages, and/or synopsis to the agent you’ve carefully selected in the exact method (e-mail with or without attachments, font, spacing, size, content, specific data points, etc.) that they prefer you could have the next best-seller and they won’t even read it!

After you’ve queried you get rejections. They’re guaranteed. For the agents it’s a subjective thing, not every book is perfect for every agent. They have to be excited enough to invest in it and “sell” it to editors.

If you don’t get rejections (yay!) you might get requests. Requests can take a few different forms (usually in the following order):

  • Partial Requests: A request for a set number of pages or chapters
  • Full Requests: They want the whole thing
  • You might also get… nothing. The silence of no response is maddening!

Revise and Resubmit Requests:
If the agent likes your Full they might send an R&R. A Revise and Resubmit means they’re excited about it, but it has a few problems. It’s an opportunity for them to let the writer know that, while at the same time see how the writer takes criticism and direction as well as their work ethic.

Now, I’ve never made it so far as an R&R (yet), but it’s my opinion (and my understanding from talking to others who have been there) that you don’t have to just go along with it. If you have reasons for some things in your story, you can stick to your guns (or swords, or spells, or magical necromantic chipmunks, or whatever).

Could pushing back against changes hurt your chances with an agent? It could, but that doesn’t mean it will. One of the key points of the whole query process is to find an agent that you can work with. There’s going to be points of disagreement (unless you’re both robots trying to STEAL MY JOB!!!). It’s the points of disagreement and how you handle them that’s key.

What Else?
So, aside from going through the query grind and getting started on a Rejection Letter wallpaper, what have I been doing?

  • High-level outlining the sequel to CROW’S BLOOD
  • Brainstorming ideas and starting to outline them. 
    • I’m sitting on 6 full book ideas at the moment with 2 of them pushing to the forefront.
  • Writing vignettes on those ideas to get a feel for the characters.
  • Slowly working my way through 2 of my CPs latest drafts.
  • Reading (for fun)

So… What have YOU been doing?

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Filed under BookB, Ego, Feedback, Id, Learning, Outline Writing, Query