Wow… Has it been that long???

Ok, I knew I wasn’t on the blog last week. Apparently, I wasn’t here the week before either. But have no fear, the whole crew is alive and well (a few dents and bruises but still qualifying as alive and well). At this point I’m still sharing my office with my wife (which increases traffic flow) and pushing hard on projects; some are near completion (with new ones jockeying to take their place) and others are definitely “coming to a middle”.

With all of this going on it’s been hard to come up with a post for this week, so I’ll ask a question (two actually):

1: What can I do to improve your reader experience here on the blog?

2: Are there topics you would like me to cover?

As usual for this time of year, I’m seeking to improve what we do here and I have some ideas, but I’d love to hear what you have to say. So please comment or email, and I’ll see you next post.

Creating and distilling

This week I’m working on multiple projects including a novel, a nonfiction book, at least two how two projects, and helping one of my team edit a story he’s writing for school. Amid all this, I find myself thinking about two of the most important steps in any writing project.

This week, in the novel, I wrote what will hopefully be the last two new chapters (until book two at least…). On the other side of the house (in nonfiction land) I have yet to write more than a paragraph or two; and yet, I’m making good progress on the project.

Next week I hope to create a full chapter in the nonfiction book and do relatively little new writing on the novel. The two projects will have flipped between phases. This week I’m creating on the novel and distilling information on the nonfiction book. Next week the nonfiction will finally be at the writing (creating) phase and I will distill information on the novel.

Creating and distilling are both very necessary phases in writing. You need to do both.

Creating may look different depending on what you’re working on. And distilling may be an early step and a late step depending on your project. But they both need to happen.

In writing, creating includes writing text and outlines of what you want to say. It may also include world building and other tasks where you’re creating elements of story. It’s vital, but just doing the creating doesn’t get you a readable book. The distilling makes your creation readable, understandable, and compelling.

Distilling comes in two flavors, editing (can’t succeed without it) and shaking out your pile of information and deciding what goes into the writing you create. But distilling won’t get you anywhere if you don’t create something to edit.

If you’re writing fiction, you might go directly to the creating part. I have a stack of story ideas and a world I’ve already , so it’s just a case of “grabbing parts and getting to the building”.

If you’re writing nonfiction, you’ll probably want to start with some distilling before you put words on paper. For the chapter I’ll write next week I started this week with 160 pages of information to work from, and I’m hoping for a 15-25-page chapter. So… I have seven to ten or twelve times the amount of material that I really want. And that’s before I add my own words! I have to shake that data pile down a bit. By spending this week reading and making notes, I’ve been able to isolate what I really need from my source material and figure out where my own words come in.

Next week I will write that nonfiction chapter and the following week I’ll be editing it, the same process I’m doing with the novel.

Editing isn’t just about finding typos. Good editing also includes working on your writing to make best use of your words. Your writing needs to be clear. You need the finished product to create a chosen effect and accomplish particular goals. Distilling your writing is part of that.

The editing/distillation process is where we cut out the extraneous material. We refine the work so it is readable and creates the picture we want it to. We may occasionally find a part that needs more words, but if you’re still adding words, you’re not done editing (99% of the time…).

Writing isn’t just putting words on paper. Yeah, we have to write words (creating), but we also need to make sure the words we’ve written are the ones that need to be there (distilling). It is only by applying both processes that our words really gain power and the ability to do what we want them to.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. There’s editing to be done and I still have to get down to the basement to do the other kind of “makin’ stuff” (the projects never stop). Good luck with your writing dear reader. And I’ll see you next post.

Racist Orcs?

This week I ran into something weird. People proclaiming that orcs (creatures in fantasy stories and games) are racist. My initial response was “Of course orcs are racist! They’re orcs!” Being racist is a known feature of orc culture in every fantasy game and world I’ve ever encountered.

But… It turns out the writers in question aren’t saying that the orcs are racists… They’re saying that the idea of orcs is racist. Somehow, they’re saying that “orcs” are really representations of blacks, Latinos, and native peoples.

Ok… We found the problematic and possibly racist concept here…

If you see a description of a big, fat, stinking, often porcine, rage monster and say, “yep, that’s a black person,” that’s racist. If you are a member of any group and see that description and say, “They’re describing me,” you have some definite problems. Whatever the writer’s intention, if you are seeing the descriptions of orcs I’ve seen and saying “that’s me”, 99 out of 100 times you have problems regardless of what the writer intended!

Tolkien, who lived through WW1 and WW2 and is one creator of the modern orc, said that orcs were emblematic of rage and mindless destruction. He said that there were orcs on both sides of the world wars. Keep in mind he’s talking about Europe. So, he’s talking about Englishmen and Germans, not blacks and Latinos.

Could someone describe a black person as an orc? Yes. I’ve also heard someone describe a woman as a “pigmy hippo”. In neither case does someone saying it make it true (especially when that someone is a third party trying to thrust his/her opinion onto your understanding of a writer’s work).

It also doesn’t mean that orcs are black people or that pigmy hippos are women. There have to be male pigmy hippos out there and there are at least as many “orcs” taking part in KKK rallies as there are anywhere else.

There is the writer’s intent, and there is what the reader sees in the writing. They are not necessarily the same thing. You can see what you want to in a piece of writing, but you can’t choose what the writer meant to say (unless you’re the writer).

So, when you read my stuff (I’m telling you right now so we don’t need any misunderstandings….), are my orcs racists?  Yes, they are! They are racist bastards (their parents aren’t married either); however, my depiction of orcs is not racist. I am depicting a race of big, fat, stinking, often porcine, rage monsters. They are not human. They are not a depiction of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans (that would be the Raven Clan…), Whites, Jews, Gypsies, Pakistanis, podiatrists or politicians; they are a race of non-human big, fat, stinking, often porcine, rage monsters. (in fact, the politicians made up excuses, and the podiatrists noped out, but the rest of those folks are fighting against the orcs somewhere…).

It’s a question of interpretation. If you see orcs and think (insert group here), that’s on you. It takes more than that to prove racism is the writer’s intention.

That’s it for this one dear reader. I have a Raven Clan kid and a red-headed girl with human problems to deal with. See you next post.

Self-isolating before it was cool…

Over on Words Mean Stuff today I’m talking a bit about how to keep the days from blurring together while we’re under ‘lock downs’, ‘stay at home orders’, and other schedule killing effects of the Covid -19 crisis. As writers, we have a leg up on this. If we writers want to be successful, we need to have a hand in controlling our schedules no matter what’s going on. We need to be putting the work in on our writing. And, this crisis lends itself somewhat to the more isolated parts of the writing process (unless you have spouses, kids, and pets (actually, if you have a spouse, kids and pets I’d love to hear how you deal with the more isolated parts of the writing process!)).

The crisis can be helpful by encouraging us to write, and work on writing related tasks. But we still need to mark and differentiate the days. One simple (and sometimes overlooked) way of doing this is putting in some planning and scheduling for our writing. A second (and related) method is tracking our progress.

One reason these techniques get overlooked is a desire to “just dive into the work”. Well, don’t do that! Spend at least a little time looking at what you want to do with a project. Set some parameters and goals. Define what you will do and how (and when) you intend to do it. And then keep track of the progress you have made.

By having a plan and keeping track of where you are in relation to that plan, you can replace some external schedule and time markers we’re all missing during the Covid crisis. It’s also a skill set that will help you find writing success when there isn’t a crisis keeping us in our homes. It’s a skill set that helps us to master ourselves and our lives no matter what our conditions are.

In my experience (and the experience of those I’ve talked to) one major cause of the days blurring together is the difficulty of measuring the passing of time and feeling like we’re not getting anywhere. When you create a plan for your writing and measure your progress, you create a way to measure time and build your sense of accomplishment. You might just learn something.

(For some of us the best thing we can learn from this is how to handle multiple projects (something I should really come back to in this blog…))

The writing life demands both community and self-control. And the current world situation really emphasizes the self-control end (while leaving us wishing for more of the community). We have an advantage as writers, the self-contained part of what we what we do fits well with this temporary ‘new normal’. Using and developing our planning and working skills will help us get through.

Good luck in your writing dear reader. I’ll see you next post.

Respect…

With all the shutdowns and kerfuffle around the Covid-19 situation, I’ve been watching the publishing and media news with interest. Some of what we’re seeing has been on the way for a while. Some things were a bit of surprise (I didn’t expect Disney execs to cut their own pay until there were no other options…). One huge through line in it all is a lack of respect.

Media companies…  writers… directors, they don’t seem to respect much except their own ideas and agendas. They don’t respect their audiences. They don’t respect their characters or the cannon of their worlds. They don’t even seem to respect other writers, directors, and companies.

Respect for audience.

No, you don’t have to cater to every whim of the audience. Sometimes they’re not sure what they want. Often, they want you to tell the story instead of asking what they want. But…  it’s a lousy idea to deliberately piss them off. Lately this has been happening a lot.

“Hey! People don’t seem to like our female Doctor in the Doctor Who series. Guess what, we just retconned the series so the original Doctor was female!”

“You know what? Batman’s Chinese now. Yeah, and instead of a butler, he’s got a gay uncle.”

“I’m naming my new characters Snowflake and Safe Space. You know, to empower people and junk!!!!”

By all the Gods, I wish I was kidding…

That last one (Snowflake and Safe Space) is my favorite. By the responses I’ve seen, the author pissed off the usual audience and offend the people he’s trying to ‘empower’.

The writing represented by these examples does no good for your audience or your relations with them. Spend more time figuring out who your audience are and how to grow that audience without alienating them.

Respect for characters and lore.

Sadly, I wasn’t kidding… Hartnel is supposedly no longer the first Doctor and Batman’s Chinese now (he’s also apparently back in high school). This problem has been going on for a while…

Your readers and viewers love the backstory and mythology that come along with characters. That stuff takes thought, effort, and commitment. You and your reader/viewer will have to put in some time before characters and story mythology are really known and developed. That’s part of why the piolet episode of a series seems so awkward when you go back and watch it after season six or seven.

When you go changing things up for a character, there needs to be real consideration for the character, the character’s world, and what would ‘really’ happen.

Just deciding “Ok, Thor’s a chick now!” or “I’m bringing back Palpatine and I don’t have to justify it,” Is jarring to the audience (please don’t throw them out of the story with ‘what the @#$%#$#!!! was that?’ moments).

Please don’t throw your reader/viewer out of the story by being stupid about how you use your characters. I’m not saying they can’t do something out of character (sometimes that’s good!) but there should be a reason for it that makes sense within the world and your character’s story.

Also, please don’t pirate a character’s name and storyline just because you’re too lazy to do the work for your new character.

I could get behind a rich Chinese kid in high school as a character; just don’t call him Batman and trash a lifetime’s worth of known history and lore.

Want to pass the baton to a new generation of Jedi? I’m good with that. I’m also good with a female Jedi main character.  But do you really have to trash Luke in the process? I don’t think so.

These kinds of changes aren’t improving the character, they’re just the mark of a lazy writer who doesn’t want to pay his/her dues in creating a new character. In story terms they’re about the same as the guy who plays Call of Duty once then goes around telling everyone he won the Congressional Medal of Honor when he was fighting the Tsarist Nazis in Vietnam back in ’96.

Summing up.

When you lose respect for your audience and characters, you make your stories unreadable/watchable. The golden rule applies to characters and audiences: do unto them as you would have them do unto you. Yes, this can mean more work. Yes, it means you have to earn the audiences respect and build the story and popularity of your characters. But it’s a lot better than making useless garbage and pissing off the people you want to resonate with.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Think about your audience and work with your characters. I’ll be doing the same. I’ll see you next post!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled…

Well dear reader, it seems even we in ‘happy valley north’ are affected by the Corona virus… As I’m writing this, I just got word that my local school district is closing until early next month. So… Instead of sitting here working on the wordy stuff, I will spend some time helping my team.

For some of my thoughts on dealing with crises and my YouTube team try the attached links (there they are again if you missed them: Crises and YouTube team).

Take care of yourself and your loved ones dear reader. And, I’ll see you next post.

Controlling the uncontrollable

“One of my characters and I have spent years trying to tell thunderstorms when and where to thunderstorm,” with that thought I realized a big piece of why it irritates me when people try to dictate (or even interfere with) when and where I write. I’ve spent years trying to control this, channel it, and now someone wants to come in and change it?

Words come at weird and inconvenient times. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, you haven’t been seriously engaged in writing for very long. I have found those “Aha!” moments popping up in the shower, while driving, during meals, and at “annoying o’clock” in the morning. And I’m not the only one. One of the best, most important, and most powerful things you can do for yourself as a writer is to make sure you have a way of remembering those thoughts and words, and recording them promptly.

If you don’t record them, you lose them; that’s just the way it works.

Another of the best, most important, and most powerful things you can do for yourself as a writer is to train yourself (and those you live and work with) to a writing schedule. It won’t protect you from those random thoughts while soaping up or trying to sleep, but having a regular writing schedule and a good place to write, that suit what your working on, makes writing much easier.

When you train yourself to a schedule, you are providing a regular time to get writing done.

When you “just wait for the mood to strike me” you never really seem to get around to writing. You definitely never get around to editing (which is usually less fun in the first place).

When you find or create a writing space for yourself, and use that place for writing, you create environmental stimuli that help your mind understand “I’m supposed to be writing now”. You might even bring in or create stimuli that help you find ideas and solutions to writer’s block and other problems, or help you get your emotions in the right place to do writing work (even editing!).

It’s about creating opportunities for the words to come. It’s about making a place for you to communicate your passions, to tell your story.

And sometimes we have to defend that time and space.

Now, I’m not giving anyone permission to go spastic on a spouse, child, or neighbor. But there comes a time where you need to calmly stand your ground and explain to someone that you are working. You are getting productive and useful things done, and those things need to happen.

You also may have to be a little flexible. If the house is burning down and your wife is having a baby, please call the fire department and take care of your wife. The universe understands and the words will come back (if they were really meant to be). Other times you may need to do things like use the bathroom or rebalance the load in your washing machine (or deal with some other nerve jangling non-sentient stimuli).

The point is to create a time and space where you usually can get some decent writing done. There will be times you don’t get much done, but if you succeed more often than not, you’re winning.

This is the same logic as my decision to average at least a thousand words a day. Ok, Monday this week I got zero words. Tuesday, I got around 1,750. Wednesday, I topped 2000! As long as you’re averaging at or above your goal, you’re doing ok. And looking at the average helps fight the idea that “Ok, that was word number 1,000. Time to turn my brain off!”

Ideas come at weird times. You need to be ready for them. You can help them come more regularly by creating a scheduled time and a familiar place in which to write.

And sometimes you will have to teach those around you that this is your writing time and space, and they need to respect that.

Well, dear reader, I suspect we should both get back to writing now. So good luck. And I’ll see you next post.

Finding the end and going back to the beginning.

Well, the first 1 ½ pass is finished for last November’s NaNoWriMo project. And, as always, I’ve learned a lot!

Starting with the1 ½ pass method has had a distinct benefit. By reading and noting on the whole thing before I started making edits I could make better decisions than I have on the first pass for early books (I really wish I’d known about the 1 ½ pass technique back when the first edition of Johnson Farm came out…).

This first editing pass has led to major changes. As things stand now, the end of the book in the first draft is actually the end for the second book. I realized I was rushing events in my “third act” far too much. It didn’t work because I wasn’t letting it develop. The natural ending for the first book was actually about 100 pages earlier.

I still love the events of those 100 pages, and by putting them into a second book I can give them the space and development they really deserve. I can also develop my former “1st” and “2nd” acts (the real story of the first book) to perfection, because I’m not sweating the upper word limit my intended publisher has set for a mid-grade book.

I know. I know. Even I’ve said we should cut when editing. And, in the first pass, I did some serious cutting. Besides moving “Act 3” and a few necessary bits of “Act 2” to the second book, I burned a whole unnecessary chapter, which allowed me to divide another chapter which was really two concatenated together. Which satisfied my intent for the unnecessary chapter better and more naturally.

Elsewhere I’ve cut a whole page (or two… or three…) where a tighter and better reading version of the text needed to grow.

Cutting is important, and I recommend cutting the dead wood out of any story. But you have to build out the parts that need expanding too. Make sure you have all the right pieces in place before you worry about finishing and polishing them.

As of now, my first “1 ½ pass” pass is done. And, believe me, I’m celebrating my success. I’ve improved my story. Now (actually… Monday), it’s back to the beginning for the second 1 ½ pass. This time the changes should be smaller. The parts cut will be smaller. Anything added will be smaller. It’s time to move from the rough work to a refining step.

Now that I really know where the ending is, and where the next book goes, I can make sure the beginning points to the right place, that my promises will be kept, and that the dreaded middle of the story will support the journey.

And then, once this pass is done, I can move to doing some polishing work (I hope). And then… It goes to the publisher (who will trigger another round of refining and polishing before the book goes to print and I can get on to developing book two).

Each book has its own quirks, challenges and rules. The rules for this book aren’t the rules from the last book. And they aren’t entirely the rules for the next book either. Our stories develop, and we grow and learn as writers. That means every project should have new challenges. And at every ending, it’s back to the beginning.

Good luck in your own writing dear reader. And I’ll see you next post.

Scrivener, update and correction…

Well dear reader I’m about half way through the full pass {link} part of my first pass through the new novel and I’ve learned a couple things about Scrivener that I’m ready to report (for the earlier portions of my adventures in using scrivener try these posts: Almost first thoughts, Scrivener… after NANO thoughts (part one), Scrivener… after NANO thoughts (part two))

Keeping it all together:

The ability to keep notes and reference material, in addition to the actual manuscript, in one place is paying off.

About a week ago, I decided that what I had understood as “Act 3” for this book was happening way too fast, there was more that needed to go in there and I was already hitting my upper word limit (I and my intended publisher feel that a mid-grade fantasy (one for the kids just below the young adult level) can be too long, so there are upper and lower limits on this project). So, with Scrivener I was able to move all the relevant chapters (even the one in “Act 2” that’s only relevant with “Act 3”) into a separate folder that’s still part of the project. They’re still there if I want parts of them, or to refer to them, but they’re not part of the manuscript and I don’t have to worry about them.

On other projects (can you ever have only one?) I’m keeping track of reading lists, research notes and other necessities easily and efficiently, and without having to open other files or programs to get to them.

Scrivener’s keep it all in one place concept is really working for me.

Editing issues:

I haven’t spent a lot of time fooling with formatting in Scrivener yet, nor have I spent a whole lot of time editing directly in Scrivener. As an old-school guy I do a lot of editing on a ‘dead tree’ edition of the manuscript where I can easily X or line through things, write notes on the draft, and still see what’s there. I’ll be commenting more on editing in Scrivener in my next past, when things are a little more ‘work directly on the computer’ friendly.

One thing I’ve really noticed is that transcribing from a compiled (formatted) printed draft to an uncompiled (’wild state’) Scrivener text can be difficult, the paragraphs don’t look the same…

Compiled manuscript format…

manuscript version of paragraphs

‘Raw’ Scrivener view…

scriv version of paragraphs

So the exact spot I’m looking for can be hard to find.

While this is sometimes frustrating, it also forces me to read what I’m working on and not just skim, and (like any of us) I need to be actively reading at this point in the game.

More to come here, but there are lessons being learned.

 

Correction! Printing problems, they aren’t quite what I thought…

I said previously that I couldn’t figure out how to print just a selection of pages from a scrivener document… Well, the ability is there:

choose pages pic

But, since I haven’t figured out how to actually see the compiled file without saving it, and there are no page numbers in the raw Scrivener file, it’s hard to know what pages I’m actually supposed to print. So… different problem, same place in the end. But, I’m learning.

I’ve also learned you need to select and compile the folder and the document to get chapter formatting in your print out.

choosing pic

On the other hand, at this point in time I’ve been moving whole chapters around and other major structural changes. So, the page numbers on the print edition aren’t necessarily reliable right now anyway…

I’m still convinced I like using Scrivener. It really is helping in some ways. But, there is definitely a learning curve!

That’s the latest, dear reader. I’m sure I’ll have more to share somewhere in the next pass.

Until then, good luck in your own writing, and I’ll see you next post.