Category Archives: Real Life™

I Suck at Writing: A Confession

I suck at writing. I don’t mean my prose, or my descriptions, or my characterizations (though I’m sure to be lacking in a number of those areas).

I mean in my work ethic.

I haven’t written a single word of real writing in ~8 weeks.

There are all sorts of excuses I could line up, between my day-job workload, to travelling, to any number of things. None of them are truly valid to the writer in me. I’ve had all those things going on before and I soldiered through and got the words down.  Hell, some of my most productive times have been when my day-job was demanding 12-16 hours of my life per day.

So what have I done? Well, let’s see. I’ve read a BUNCH of books. I sort of caught up on some of the TV I’ve recorded. I’ve seen a few movies in theatres (and really enjoyed them). I’ve kicked some ass at The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD. And I’ve spent far too much money on Skylanders.

Writing related? I’ve cycled out a few more queries on CROW’S BLOOD. Tracked through and kept up with the blogs of all the writers I know and love. And I’ve re-worked the outline for my historical fantasy about six times.

Six times may seem like I’ve been keeping busy, but really I haven’t. Not busy enough anyway. I could be doing a lot more… you know… writing.

I’ve been doing some much-unneeded self-examination on what exactly my problem is. Turns out it’s pretty simple:

I suck at writing. This time I am talking about the prose, descriptions, and characterizations.

I worked on CROW’S BLOOD for a LONG time. I finished the first draft in November of 2011! Never mind that I completely threw that draft and story away and re-worked the entire novel from the ground up. That’s more than 2 years ago!!!

It’s been that long since I really dug in and worked on something new. The sense of accomplishment I felt at the end of every draft as the story and prose got tighter is gone, and the distance from that first clunky and painful draft is vast.

When I look at what I’ve written lately (and by lately I mean before I got into my writing funk), all I can see is the warts and garbage and things that make me want to set it on fire and walk away. It’s no wonder I’ve re-outlined the thing so many times. Outlines are safe. I can write a REALLY cool outline. Point form mind-maps don’t have to be pretty.

I’ve forgotten that it’s OK to suck, especially on your first draft. No one has everything worked out. No one has the perfect words for every sentence. No one really knows where the commas are supposed to go!

I suck at writing. But I desperately need to remember and keep reminding myself that it’s OK to suck. I’m going to keep doing it, updating my word-counts here on my blog so you can all keep score (and I can keep myself accountable).

I need to push on and get through the first draft. That first, clunky, broken, full of holes draft. I need to finish the story. I need to tie up all the loose ends. And I really need to achieve that awesome sense of finishing something.

You know why?

I’m really good at revision.

– Alex

P.S. Have any of you ever hit that wall? Let me know how you got past it in the comments.

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Filed under Outline Writing, Query, Real Life™, Revision, Validation, Word Count

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

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

Thiiiiiiiis close!

The last five days have been harrowing, dreadful, bone-chilling days. With my latest revision complete and polished, and with my Query Letter and Pitch polished for #PitchMadness, I really only had one thing missing from my arsenal: A Synopsis.

Let me define that little eight-letter-word for you as best I can: 
Synopsis [si-nop-sis] (n):
  1. A brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject.
  2. An evil  creation of agents and editors for the express purpose of torturing writers.
  3. A soul-sucking vampire in word form.

There’s no perfect consensus in the writing world on what exactly a synopsis is but this is what I’ve found to be most often repeated:

  • 1-5 single-spaced pages
  • Block formatted paragraphs (no indents)
  • Double-space between paragraphs (a single blank line)
  • No smaller than 10pt font
  • Outline ONLY the main plot of your book
From what I’ve seen, 2 pages is the standard length for an agent (at least with the agents I intend to query in my first round that require them).
Sounds easy enough right? Just take your ~60,000 – ~115,000 word (240 – 460 page) book and boil it down to ~1,000 words. Oh, and keep it interesting! Remember: You’re selling your idea here!
Simple right?
ARGH!!!
So here’s what I did: 
I went through my manuscript, skimming chapter by chapter, and making notes of the major points of that chapter. I tried to keep it short and ended up with around 2,900 words.
Then I went through and mercilessly cut anything that didn’t directly have anything to do with the main plot. 1,900 words.
I pared, whittled, reworded, and tweaked every sentence, revising from my quickly written notes to the most sparse text I could get while still maintaining clarity and some semblance of flow. 1,300 words.
I did that two more times, ending at just over 1,000 words, which fit nicely within 2 pages at 10pt Arial and 10pt Times New Roman.
Then I called it a day.
Now, that ordeal is done until I’ve had someone other than me, who’s read the last revision, go over it and tell me what I’ve done wrong.
I have to apologize and thank my wife and children for bearing with me and giving me the time to work on this and a sounding board for my complaints, and my friends and followers on Twitter who have had to deal with me exploding/ranting/whining/begging over the past five days. I’m sorry if I’ve gotten on any of your nerves.
– Alex

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Filed under Agent, BookB, Critique, Editor, Grammar/Spelling, Learning, Pitch, Query, Real Life™, Revision, Story Elements, Twitter, Word Count

One Third of the Way

I’m well past my due date for checking in. I haven’t even blogged in July!

That little progress bar at the right is moving along though. Slowly but surely, and as fast as it can with only an hour or two on most nights.

I’ve just come back from visiting my father in Winnipeg, which is a truly, uh, flat place. He’s lived out there most of my life, doing his thing, which I have to admit is doing a lot of good for a lot of people. I know my kids miss seeing more of him though. I do too.

Winnipeg has one thing I definitely do NOT like: Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes that were likely the cause of any and every mass extinction since they came about. That mosquito in amber in Jurassic Park? Yeah, my money is on IT being the reason dinosaurs were wiped out.

Pterodactyl-mosquitoes aside, we had fun spending time with family and seeing the sights out there.

I’ve updated the Movie List a few times recently. Between writing and other Real Life™ stuff this year I haven’t seen nearly as many movies as I’d have liked. I’m hearing that Pacific Rim is good fun though, so I’m working on seeing that.

On the writing/revising side of things (because, really, that’s the point of this blog), things are going relatively well… I think. That’s the problem with being a first time writer, and a really good reason to have Critique Partners: You’re too close to your own work, and you simply don’t know what you’re doing wrong!

No! Really! One of the major points of this revision is to give more depth to Flynn, the MC. I know I’m giving some more depth, but is it enough? Can there be too much? I really have no idea…

So I plan to forge onwards until this revision is done, then send it to my Alpha Readers and CP’s (and 1 or 2 new sets of eyes) for more feedback. I hope that they won’t shun me…

I do know that I’ve cleaned up some of what my CP’s and I found were real pain points plot/story wise. I only hope I haven’t opened more in doing so.

As for a deadline? I aim to be done this pass before the end of August, mostly because at the end of September I’ll be reaching a year on this book and I think I should be moving faster.

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Filed under Alpha Readers, BookB, Character, Critique, deadlines, Feedback, Learning, Real Life™, Revision, Voice, Word Count

Zug Zug

Remember that little progress bar to the right? Take a peek at that sucker!

BAM! That’s right. Revision 4 complete! It took considerably longer than it probably should have, but Real Life™ tends to not care what we have planned.

I put every spare moment I had into getting it done (hence the disgusting lack of blog updates). The problem being that spare moments weren’t as plentiful as I’d hoped they would be. That said, in the interest of getting it done, I’ve learned a new skill.

I can now revise, out loud, in public places, with lots of distractions. Sure, people probably thought I was crazy, and it didn’t go nearly as fast as when I hide in my writing cave, but it was time to revise I didn’t have otherwise. I’ve now revised out loud in places such as hockey arenas, train stations, hotels, coffee shops, and book stores.

This revision was a game changer, and I have to say, I’m going to do an out loud pass on everything I write from here on out (yes, including this blog entry). It makes such a difference to the flow and clarity of the written words. There’s something about engaging the speech and hearing centres of the brain that catches all the crud the eyes miss.

Take another look at that progress bar, see the numbers under it? That’s 4,598 words shaved off the word count, all in the name of clarity. And it wasn’t just 4,600 words dropped, it was closer to 7,000 words cut, then more words built on top.

During this process I won a 40 page critique from Kat Ellis on her blog. Her feedback was AMAZING, and I tried to take it into consideration throughout the rest of the draft. I can only hope I succeeded.

I’ve put the latest in my DropBox for my Alpha Readers, and e-mailed copies to 2 of my 3 current Critique Partners (Colten Hibbs, Rachel Russel, and Clara Mitchell). Now it’s all over except for the terror… and feedback.

– Alex

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Filed under Alpha Readers, BookB, Critique, deadlines, dropbox, Editor, Ego, Real Life™, Revision, Word Count

#PitchMadness

#PitchMadness is a contest run by the fantastic/wonderful/hard-working/must-be-crazy Brenda Drake. You can read a great deal more about it on her blog. The contest submission window opened at 6am this morning and closed at noon. Here’s the thing, a bunch of my favourite people in the Twitter Writing Community are involved, either as Blog Hosts and Slush Zombies, or Agents (4 of my Top 10 list of agents are involved!!!).

After some prodding from my friends in the community I made the jump and entered. The time of my submission? 6:05am. No, I didn’t get up that early just to submit (there was no cut-off, and after 11am is more my style), I was up for a hockey tournament.

Even if I don’t make it to round 2, this is an experience, and I’m meeting a fair number of new people at a similar stage in their writing aspirations. So it’s a win no matter what happens.

The submission requirements were: A pitch of no more than 35 words (which is a LOT harder than you think, YOU try summarizing your favourite book in 35 words or less while sounding original AND grabbing attention), and an excerpt of the first 250 words.

Here’s my submission:

Title: CROW’S BLOOD
Genre: YA Fantasy
Word Count: 100,000
Pitch:
Flynn, a talented young thief, is the prime suspect in a series of grisly ritual murders. He’s also the kingdom’s best chance to find the real killer. He’ll just need to pull one last heist.
Excerpt: 
A sharp crack broke the silence of the cavernous Inner Sanctum of the Praetorian Order, echoing off the vaulted ceiling and the stained glass dome at its centre. A small segment disappeared from the scene depicting the Goddess, her four Scions, and her Adversary. Pale moonlight, mostly from the Other, the brighter of the two moons at that hour, struck downwards to light a small circle on the mosaic near the centre of the floor in the great library. The larger moon, Ambrosia, having just crested the horizon, wasn’t bright enough to lend its pink hue.
The black rope uncoiled down the shaft of moonlight with a soft whisper. Flynn vaulted into the gap, and dropped along the rope’s length, matching the speed of its fall. He grabbed on to slow himself only at the last instant, and touched down soundlessly.
Looking back up at the hole in the stained glass, he could make out the silhouette of his mentor, Martin, framed against the glowing white spectre of the Other. He couldn’t make out any of Martin’s features, backlit as he was. Flynn knew there would be a scowl set deep in the older man’s lined face. Martin worried too much.
Crouched in the centre of the great library, Flynn turned in a slow circle to get his bearings. He mentally compared the layout with the map he’d memorized in the days before. Spotting one of his landmarks, he set off into the concentric rows of heavily laden bookshelves. 
Long years of practice meant the only sound Flynn made was the faint ripple of the air past his close fitting, mottled-grey outfit. 

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Filed under Agent, BookB, Contest, Ego, Id, Pitch, Query, Real Life™