Archive for the ‘Writers and Writing’ category

The Homophone Issue

March 4th, 2014

Do you try to ‘rein in’ or ‘reign in’ an abuse of power? If you chose the latter, you are incorrect–but you have good company. More people seem to be falling prey to incorrect usage of homophones (words that sound the same) as the original meaning of words and phrases fades from memory.

The confusion in this case stems from the assumption that since a monarch has a reign of power, one might seek to ‘reign’ him or her in. But the original phrase comes from horse riding. If you’ve ever ridden, you know that it takes some work to rein in a horse with a head of steam–it’s an apt phrase. Similarly, giving something ‘free rein’ (deriving from letting the horse choose its path) is often mis-used as ‘free reign’. (Continuing with an equine theme, when you are excited you are said to be ‘champing at the bit’, not ‘chomping’ as many people assume.)

If the ultimate goal of writing is communication, not much is truly lost when an incorrect homophone is used–the reader will probably know what you mean. But when the homophone substitute has nothing to do with the original meaning of the phrase I believe we are diminishing the English language. And once a mistake begins to be commonly made, it spreads like a communicable disease. The next thing you know, serial commas are virtually eliminated from usage, its and it’s are used interchangeably, and nouns are turned to verbs.

Whoops, we may already be there!

But we CAN remember to compliment someone who complements us with their presence, re-sign the player who we thought had resigned, and above all keep a tight rein on our word choices.

Peace.

Retreat to Go Forward

December 28th, 2009

I finished Sword, Staff, and Chalice on Yuletide Eve, which was a nice present. Starting with a plot that was fairly solid but had some gray areas in it, I wrote 120,000 words in under two months, which is a good pace for me. The first draft has been described as a ‘page turner’ by its intrepid first reader (I haven’t even re-read the book myself yet), which is something no one said about Beowulf Stormbringer.

When I was midway through book one, Scott Sigler gave me some good advice, namely that my first book would suck. I resisted that wisdom at the time, but after learning how to do it properly, I can now say that story-wise book one is too internal, linear, and simple. Things come too easily to young Beowulf, and as a result, he has more conflict in his own mind than he does with the world. Not ideal for sword and sorcery… My task right now is to discover my events that complicate and enrich his path toward discovering his own strength and the sword that is a two-edged, um, sword for him.

It is for this reason many people wiser than I have argued that starting your novel-writing career with a series is idiotic—you have to sell the series on the basis of the first book, and guess which one is likely the weakest? However, even if I had gotten that sage advice before starting, I might still have started the way I did. It’s been a wonderful learning experience, and I believe I can finish a strong three book series. Writing a standalone second book might get me to market faster, but speed is not my goal. I don’t want to be published until I’m have something that is fun, satisfying, and just a little edifying, I am ready to maintain a pace of two books a year, and I already have one or two sequels or new projects nearly complete to follow it up.

At the same time as I work on the plot to book one, I want to push ahead with book three (just starting to flesh out the plot now), and I have at least three other projects I am itching to start. That means more living very simply (which as long as I have a roof over my head and enough to eat is actually fine with me), working hard, and writing 3,000 words per day when I’m writing rather than plotting, researching, or editing. All of which I’m really looking forward to.

Nano Wreflections

November 19th, 2009

We have passed the halfway point of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, or nanowrimo as the kids call it. I’ve crossed the 50,000 word threshold on my current project (a sequel to my first novel, which is currently out in the hands of test readers), which means I’ve kept my daily production around 3,000 words. That was my goal, as that’s about the fastest I can write consistently while still keeping my first draft to an acceptable level of quality.

The November schedule forced me to move up my starting point for the book, but it still worked within my original plan, and even got me thinking I could finish book #2 by the end of this year—which would make two books finished this year (one in first draft and the other ready for a second round of revisions before going out to agents).

Following are the things I loved about nano and some things that didn’t work as well for me. If you’re doing nano and haven’t friended me, please do so at the username above (worldblee)—I’d love to see your progress!

The good

  • The competitive spirit helped keep me on track: 3K words every weekday and 2K every weekend day. Measurable goals help keep me from slacking off, even if I don’t feel well or am having trouble with a scene.
  • I exercised my ‘write ahead’ strategy whenever I got stuck, picking up the narrative thread past any troublesome spots and then coming to back to fill in the gaps later. I find it easier to write through a tough patch when the action before and after is completely filled in—it becomes more of a transition exercise in that case.
  • Making new friends and keeping track of everyone else’s progress—it feels good to have a group of similarly motivated writers working on their projects on the same schedule.

The not-as-good

  • Word count goals are self-reinforcing. They don’t measure quality, story progress, or anything other than the number of words you cranked out. There is little incentive to rein in description, back story, etc. This means that within the 54,000 words I’ve written thus far are little darlings that will have to be cut later.
  • The timing of November 1 came up before I was as far along in plotting as I would have liked. I had the main story beats worked out and certain sections pretty well worked out, but others just had loose notes about the outcome of the chapter—so that meant making up a lot on the fly. I prefer to separate plotting from writing as much as possible, and I wasn’t always able to do that.
  • I probably would have been better served to delay my start for a few days while working on the chapter notes in more detail.

Excerpt

I’m always curious as to what others are writing in their daily word counts. So here is a scene to show what my rough drafts look like. This was one day’s writing. Open, kimono!

Beowulf and Riven led them at as fast of a pace as they dared in the growing dark. In the space of a half hour, they reached sloping grassland that marked the end of the hills, pushing their horses to a trot. They could not risk a light for fear of alerting their pursuers, but the sky was still faintly luminous and the ground was even.

As the darkness became more absolute, the moon not being scheduled to rise for hours yet, they slowed their pace. Beowulf noticed the faintest of glows to the west. “Do you think they got ahead of us?” he asked Riven.

The old soldier shook his head. “Even riding hard, I don’t think they could have gotten that far ahead. And if they did, why they raise a light to alert us? No, it must be a village.”

“It is hard to tell in the dark, but I feel I know these lands,” Freya said.

Beowulf thought back to the story of her childhood she had told him. “You were born not far from here, right?” he said.

“We could be close.”

As they grew closer, the glow separated into a number of small lights. It was not the light of a city, or even a town, it was the humble gleam of open fires. These villagers must cling to the old ways, as Freya had told Beowulf. It made Woden seem like a modern city by comparison, which took some doing.

Riven looked to Born. “It’s as good as place as any to stop for the night. Perhaps we can barter for a meal and place to rest out of the wet for the horses and us.”

Gargarin sniffed the air. “It will rain again tonight. A dry spot would be good.”

They slowed to a walk as they entered the outskirts of the village, looking about cautiously.

An old woman, bent over and with a cloudy mass of gray hair, watched them ride into the village. The houses were glorified huts, crafted from rough wood, some even with bits of leaves and thin branches left on. Cookfires were set before the door, perhaps to keep the bugs out and perhaps because doing so did not necessitate a fire hole in the roof that would let the rain in.

“We do not often see travelers such as yourselves,” she said. Her voice was gritty, like rough pebbles, and her accent was strange. Yet it felt somehow familiar to Beowulf. I know someone who speaks so.

Born started to reply, but Freya overrode him. “We travel in peace,” she said, her voice formal. “Seeking hearth and home for the night, as we would share with you in turn.”

That’s where I heard that accent. Freya’s voice has smoothed somewhat since I’ve known here, but when she first spoke it had that air.

The old woman bowed her head. “You know our ways.”

“I was raised in a village much like this,” Freya said.

“You’ve risen far, then,” the woman said. “To wear such trappings and ride a fine horse.”

“One can never leave her beginnings behind,” Freya said. “No matter how far she travels, they are always with her.”

The woman nodded her head slowly. “Which village do you come from?”

“I do not know the name. I left when I was very young.”

Beowulf looked more closely at the woman. She was not as old as she first appeared. Life must have used her hard. Maybe stooping over a cooking fire had aged her skin prematurely.

“I had a daughter once,” the woman said. “But I had to give her up, and after that I had no more. I could not go through the pain of losing a child again.”

“What was the name of your daughter?”

“Freya.”

A tremor passed through Freya. Then she mastered herself. “That is an unusual name. But it must be common, living close to the Great Forest as you do.”

“It is rare. A name given only to those who have special talents. But the auguries of her birth turned out to be false. My daughter never spoke or showed any signs of having a gift. So she was sacrificed to the forest to let the trees decide. I don’t know how the tree spirits judged her, but in my heart I hope they took her in and unlocked her gifts.”

“What would you say if your daughter came back to you?”

The old woman looked at her. “In truth, I would say she was lucky to get away. There is little here to soften a hard life. If she has found a way to leave her roots behind, she should realize it can be a gift to become your own person, free to choose who you are.”

“I do not believe that is so,” Freya said softly. “If you loved her once, you would love her still.”

“Love? It is a luxury for those richer than me.”

“It costs nothing to care. My mother had little, yet I swear she loved me.”

“Perhaps she was a better woman than me.” The woman paused and then changed topics. “But what brings you and your party to our doorstep?” Other villagers had spilled out from their huts, looking at the strangers with curiosity. They wore simple clothes of linen and wool, in drab colors and varying states of repair. Beowulf watched them back, he and his gelding both breathing clouds of steam into the cold night air.

“As I said, we seek shelter for the night. For our horses and ourselves.”

“What do you offer in return?”

“We can offer coin, if that’s what you want,” Born said. “Or the blessing of Od from one of his stormcrows.”

Greshawk raised his head from Beowulf’s saddle, where he had been riding, tucked between the saddle and Beowulf’s thighs. “I’m not sure they want Od’s blessing,” he said.

The woman looked at the black bird and spit on the ground. “He has that right,” she said. “The All Father abandoned his wife when he left the world. We live close enough to the trees to know this and have no love for him.”

Surprisingly, Greshawk did not seek to rebut her.

“A silver coin then?” Born asked. “Do you have a barn where the horses can stay?”

Beowulf raised an eyebrow. A silver coin was probably more than the woman saw in a year, if any coin crossed her palm at all. Maybe Born believes she is Freya’s mother.

“There is a lean-to that will keep the rain off. And hay. There is enough soup in the pot to feed you, if you wish.”

Riven dismounted and Beowulf followed suit. “Point me to the lean-to, good woman,” Riven said. “Some soup would please me, and the sooner we get the horses settled the sooner we can taste your fare.”

She directed them to a bark-roofed shelter, set on poles on one side and trees on the other. Beowulf and Riven led the horses to drink from a trough, unsaddled and rubbed them down, and set a pile of hay in front of them.

“You think we’re safe to rest here?” Beowulf asked.

Riven shrugged. “We’ll take watches either way. But I see no goods for Norkassel here. I don’t think we have to worry about these folk selling us out. If the soldiers arrive, we have a better chance of slipping away into the night before they find us than we would if we camped alone.”

“But we might be able to make the forest tonight if we kept pushing.”

“The horses need a rest. And we don’t know for certain how far the forest is—could be five miles or it could be five leagues. Let’s enjoy a hot meal and we’ll leave before first light.”

When they sat to eat on logs pulled up before the fire, the children gathered around them, quiet and wide-eyed. They evidently did not see many strangers. The soup was at least hot, with greasy chunks of lamb amidst root vegetables Beowulf did not recognize by sight or taste. They were pale and chewy, and they filled the belly. Better than what we’d have gotten if we stopped on our own, anyway.

After he finished his bowl and mopped up the broth with a crust of brown bread, Beowulf got out his goat hornpipe and played a melody for the children. Thirl got out the hand drum he’d kept from their spell of minstrelsy with Darl in the Sveldtlands, and together they played one of the songs Darl had taught them when they’d backed Freya’s dancing.

Beowulf looked at Freya, asking with his eyes if she wanted to dance. She shook her head, her face sad. She had been very quiet since her conversation with the woman. Even quieter than usual. Beowulf finished the song. The children wanted more, but he shook them off. Gargarin had wandered away, always more comfortable in the wild than in the presence of strangers. The wolf was not shy but she was no one’s pet. She preferred to hunt for her own meals rather than eat human food. This left Freya with no one to talk to.

He wandered in Freya’s direction but Riven intercepted him. “Can you take first watch, boy? I’ll take the second, and Gargarin will probably turn up in time for the final watch.”

“I was going to talk to Freya.”

“You’ll have time tomorrow. Besides, looks like she’d rather have some quiet time to herself.”

How do you know, old man? But he relented. “All right. I’ll take first watch.”

Freya glanced in Beowulf’s direction. “I will sit with you for a while,” she said.

His heart rose at that. Even if she only wants comfort, it will be good to have someone to talk to. “Company would be welcome,” he said.

She walked with him as they moved east of the village. There was a tree there that would keep off the worst of the rain, if it came again. And it gave them a view of anyone approaching from north or east. They sat with their backs against the tree. Beowulf arranged his cloak over their legs and Freya snuggled against him to share their warmth.

He said nothing for a time. Voices still came from the village behind them, chiefly Riven’s as he befriended the men of the village and sought to learn if they had any spirits to drink. But it was quieting down and he could hear the wind still blowing from the east. Stronger yet, he could feel it on his face, cold and presaging more rain. It made Freya’s warmth against him doubly cherished. He had to admit, though, that he would have appreciated her presence even if the night were sweaty hot. Probably because she’s the only girl I’ve been around since I left Woden. Save for Gargarin.

That thought made him smile and Freya looked at him quizzically. She did not smile in return and he saw again the hurt in her eyes. He was unsure what to say, feeling out of step with her.

“What does it feel like coming here?” That was all he could think to say.

“It makes me . . . remember things.”

“But not happy memories.”

She turned against him and he felt her warm tears on his throat. Her body shook and she put one arm around his far shoulder. Beowulf froze. If this were a fight, I’d know what to do. Then slowly, as if trying not to frighten a wild animal, he put his left arm around her body, feeling her strength as well as her softness. Her left hand was under his cloak, not far from his hand, and he found it with his other hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

For once, he was wise enough to say anything. He felt an overwhelming rush of emotions and sensations, which helped silence his tongue. Her breath against his chest, dampness from her tears seeping into his tunic below his neck, his heart beating against her chin. His eyes grew moist too, but not wholly in sadness.

In empathy because she had chosen to share her sorrow with him. He had thought her a skinny, wild girl when he first saw her. Yet I never felt this way with Sjani. Beowulf did not want the embrace to end, even though the position was uncomfortable to hold. He was afraid that if he moved it would spoil the moment.

But she slowly gathered herself, releasing her arm from his shoulder and drawing away. He released his arm as well. I do not want to hold on to her if she does not want to be held. But that was a lie. Beowulf still wanted to hold her.

Freya took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I am sorry. I did not mean to cry.”

“I did not mean to cry after my first battle. But I did. And you were the one who gave me comfort.” He realized he had never thanked her for that, or even spoken of it.

She gave him the tiniest of smiles, a half-hearted effort that gave her mouth a sad, crooked expression.

Beowulf finally asked the question that was on his mind. “Was she truly your mother?”

“I do not think so. There are many women with similar stories. When times are hard, daughters are given to the forest.”

“But she said her daughter was prophesied to have gifts,” Beowulf prodded. “Like you.”

“It doesn’t matter. You heard what she said. She has no love for her daughter, save for a dim hope the forest took her and she still lives.”

“Perhaps I did not hear her right,” he said. “But that was not how I read her words.”

She abruptly straightened her leg, throwing off his cloak and kicking his foot in the process. “You’re so wise I’m sure you hear better than me, what with the spirit of Od inside you.”

Beowulf gritted his teeth, willing himself not to respond in kind. “You know as well as I people don’t always say what they mean. I think she hoped you were her daughter, but was too afraid you were not, or that you’d reject her.”

“Why would I reject her?”

“Because she cast you out. And now your station seems so much better than hers, riding into town in fancy clothes. Why would someone who escaped here want to come back?”

“Is your Woden so grand in comparison?”

“I’m not saying what I think. I’m saying what she might think.”

“Oh.”

There was a long pause.

“Would it be wrong if we helped the plants of the village to show her our powers?” she said, slipping into the third person she still sometimes employed, especially when she thought of her kinship with the sentient trees of the Great Forest.

“I suppose not.”

“There should be fall crops in the gardens north of the village.” She looked down, oddly shy. “Would you like to come and watch?”

“I should keep watch. But I guess I can see from there,” he said, finishing in a rush. Don’t trip on your heels as you follow her like a pup. “If you want.”

Beowulf made a show of looking out at the horizon and then they walked together. He felt awkward, the change in context having stripped away the intimacy he’d felt earlier. She just needed a shoulder to cry on. Don’t fool yourself.

The growing fields were largely bare, the harvest—which looked to have been meager—having been gathered. There were some spindly apple and pear trees and rows of leafy plants Beowulf assumed were the tops of the root vegetables they’d eaten in the soup. “Not much to work with,” he said.

Freya looked intently at the earth. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

She was focused on her examination, so Beowulf turned to his watch duties, looking out into the night for any interlopers. When he was convinced nothing stirred, he watched her again. Freya had her hands on the little trees, stroking the branches and whispering to herself. She moved from tree to tree, her face radiant and alive. Growing things are what she truly loves.

She finished with the trees and crouched by the vegetables, running her fingertips over their tops as she moved down the row. This took a few minutes, during which he once again stood guard. Then she walked over the empty ground where wheat, rye, carrots, potatoes, and other crops had been harvested. He watched her finish.

Then she came back to him, her eyes alight. “It is finished,” she said. “I had a good talk with them.”

“Where they shirking their duty?”

“It’s not like that. They needed encouragement and help gathering themselves to grow stronger.”

“What about the bare ground?”

“It only looks bare on the surface. There are seeds there, waiting for spring. I wanted to make sure they and the ground were ready to do their best when the time was right.”

“If you’re done, I should get back to my watch.”

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

Yes. “No, you should rest. I’m sure the trees will have much for you to do when we reach the forest. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then.”

“Sleep well.”

He watched her go then returned to his post. Nothing interesting happened, other than the usual nighttime sounds, until Riven came to relieve him sometime around midnight. His blanket had been unrolled by Thirl and Freya, and he took to it with pleasure.

It had been a busy day.

(c) Copyright 2009 by David C. Lee. All rights reserved.

Soliciting Test Readers

October 22nd, 2009

I finished the second draft of my novel Beowulf Stormbringer this week, which means only one thing: it’s time to ask for your help. Dear Reader, I am looking for test readers willing to honestly critique my book.

Reader feedback instructions

Reader feedback instructions

If you’re a lover of young-at-heart fantasy, a connoisseur of books in general, or a cynical curmudgeon convinced all tales written after Gilgamesh are mere copycats, I’m looking for you. If you’re a reader, there’s a chance for an acknowledgment if the book is published and your feedback is good. If you’re a writer, I will reciprocate by critiquing a project of your choice.

Here’s a brief summary of the book to help you decide if you want to chance reading it:

Many know the legend of Beowulf who fought the monster Grendel. But that man was not the first Beowulf. Before the gods left his world to come to ours, a Skarlish boy named Beowulf stowed away on a dragonship to seek his missing father.

Cast ashore in unfamiliar lands, Beowulf discovers his father ran afoul of the Ordning, a monolithic religious organization that seeks to rule Midgard. He also finds that as his father’s heir, the latent power in his blood makes him an important player in the looming conflict between a group of rebels and the Ordning.

Beowulf and his companions take up the quest that eluded his missing father: using lore of the Old Ones to find the ancient sword Blood-drinker and challenge the monolithic Ordning—even if it means the storms that follow him will take his life. With untested young wizard Thirl and the wise but fey forest girl Freya as his companions, Beowulf sets out to overcome danger, doubt, and his own flaws on a journey to find the sword of his birthright and become BEOWULF STORMBRINGER.

You can read a sample chapter here. I should have an audio version of the first chapter up soon as well.

To participate, all you need to do is drop me a line, send me a message on Twitter, or leave a comment on the page with your email address properly set in your login. I will send you a PDF of the book along with a comment form.

For those interested in what the comment form looks like, here it is. In case any other writers want to use it, I’ve made it generic.

[Document draft] Feedback Form

[Date]

Dear [Reader name],

Thank you for reading a draft of my novel [Title]. Your feedback can help improve the book—if you like it, great, but I’m more interested in what you DON’T like. Getting praise from readers afraid of hurting my feelings won’t help me a bit if I overlook flaws that later disappoint publishers, agents, and paying readers. My goal is to create the best reading experience possible, and you can help me by pointing out the bits that aren’t up to par—as long as you tell me in detail WHY they fall short.

The good news is that if you get bored, frustrated, or confused, you don’t have to keep reading. You can simply let me know where you got stuck, and why, and send me back this form. If your experience corresponds with other readers, I’ll do my best to fix that problem. Only read all the way through the book if you’re having a good time doing so.

The only other thing I ask of you is that you return this form within 30 days of receipt if possible. This will help shorten the schedule to get the book to agents and publishers—it’s not going anywhere until I hear from YOU. Because you’re a STAR!

Thank you,

[The author]

PS: If you have friends who might like to read the book, let me know. I’m especially looking for [reader type]. The more points of view I get the better.

How would you describe yourself as a reader (voracious, fantasy reader, general reader, casual, picky, etc.)?

What kind of reader (if any) would you recommend this book to (young adult, general fantasy, male, female, etc.)? Are there any other books you would compare this book to?

What were the three things (characters, chapters, language, pace, clarity, dialog, etc.) you liked BEST in this book? Please explain why.

1.

2.

3.

What were the three things (characters, chapters, language, pace, lack of clarity, boring sections, dialog, etc.) you liked LEAST in this book? Please explain why.

1.

2.

3.

Should the book be published and your feedback be deemed helpful in this process, how would you like your name to appear in the acknowledgments?

Lastly, please let me know any other comments you have on the book. If you have ideas or criticisms, don’t be shy!

In structuring the comment form, I found my own past life as a marketing manager helpful as well as the kind advice of BubbleCow. I’ve just given the book a line-by-line edit, so I’m less interested in minutiae as I am big picture problems. I’m hoping readers will read through it just like they would a book from the shelf and I have a strict no-work policy. If it starts to feel like work, quit reading and let me know where it fell apart.

Have a wonderful day!

Writing Ahead

September 23rd, 2009

Back in my pantser days, I would start writing a story with only the foggiest idea of how it would end. I might start with an image, a character, a situation, whatever I found interesting. Then I’d see where it would lead. And sometimes it worked.

My current novel project started that way. I had the character of Beowulf, a red-haired Viking boy from an alternate world, in my mind, but other than the fact he was going to leave his island home in search of adventure I had little idea of what would happen. My first draft proceeded in fits and starts, and ultimately was abandoned for a few years while I kept thinking about the story. If it wasn’t meant to be, it would have stayed dead, but it stayed alive in my head and when I was ready to start again I worked on the plot before I returned to writing.

I eventually worked out a 1–10 outline with the major plot points, but still found myself meandering into plot eddies that I found personally interesting—but they weren’t driving the main plot forward. I found the best method for me (your mileage may vary) was writing present tense summaries of upcoming action in brackets in the manuscript. They might look something like this:

[On the third day of travel they play for coins at a rundown inn. The crowd is surly, but mellows as they work hard in their performance. Still, men in the audience pester Freya. Darl tells Beowulf to go outside and get a breath of air since he is getting angry. He will handle things inside. Beowulf, unarmed, goes outside. Two men recognize him from his performance and ask him where he is from. He shrugs and says he’s not sure; the road is the only home he’s known. They seem friendly enough, but he’s suspicious of their motives.]

They’re not all this detailed, but they have enough information to make writing out the actual scenes a writing task rather than a plotting task.

I can’t say that I’m an awesome plotter, someone who can map out a book perfectly with satisfying character arcs, conflict, etc. without requiring revision. But by separating the plotting into first an outline and then to crudely written descriptions, I can at least reduce the amount of simultaneous processing my brain is doing. First, I’m thinking pretty much purely about the story to come up with the best story I can without worrying about word choices, sentence structure, metaphors, etc. The story has to live and die by its essential details. Then when I write, I’m thinking just about capturing scenes on paper.

Now that I’m done with a first draft, I’m still playing with certain plot elements. Even with a story that was pretty well plotted out, I’m not so kick ass that everything works to my satisfaction. But I’m way better off than I would have been if I had kept writing without knowing where I was going.

Of Goals and Word Counts

September 15th, 2009

We all need goals: make rent money, clean the kitchen, drag our butts out of bed. As a writer, I find myself in a quandary because the more quantifiable I make my goals vis-à-vis word count the more I find myself driven to gauge my writing by content rather than quality.

I have little interest in writing sprawling, 700-page novels. I really like shorter books. In fact, my first fear as a writer was that I could never write anything as long as a novel—I was a poet and short story writer in my college training and everything I’ve done in my professional life since has been shorter work. I have a love of story and language but not of the complicated plots required to sustain a really long novel.

That was one of the reasons (besides a true and abiding love for children and the literature that inspired me as a child) I wanted to write books for younger readers rather than just for adults. But I digress.

Writing to a daily word count encourages me to take my time with scenes, adding details that are not essential to the book’s main plot. It’s all stuff that I find interesting and helps flesh out the world and characters—and it endangers my 100,000 word count goal for the book.

To help this, I started giving myself goals such as finishing a scene or getting my characters to x place in the story by the end of the day rather than a strict word count target. I still try to hit a minimum of 1,000 words in a day, as novels do have word count parameters and one does not have the luxury of taking years to finish a book most of the time. But story goals help keep me focused on the heart of writing: the darn story.

I recently completed a #wordathon “contest” where I shared word (and page revision) counts with other writers. It was a wonderful exercise in motivation that helped me write 10,800 words in two and a half days, my largest output ever in that amount of time. In that case, it worked because I already had my scenes carefully plotted out and I just had to focus on the writing. The group project provided extra incentive to work hard.

But I’ve had other instances of days with good word counts where I’ll have to spend extra time in revisions tightening up scenes and dialog. The word count goals that seemed so impressive at the time ended up being ephemeral because I hadn’t set proper story goals.

The best words are the ones that stay on the page—and in the reader’s mind. Even a small number of them is better than a large number of forgettable words written to satisfy a daily word count.

Saving Your Work

August 19th, 2009

How much work are you willing to lose? That’s what you need to ask yourself if you don’t have a backup strategy for your working documents. If you save your files to your hard drive, you can lose them if your hard drive goes south (although there are data recovery options that can save data) or if your laptop or PC is lost or stolen (never check your laptop; keep it with you at all times when traveling!).

I don’t like re-doing any writing. I feel my first effort is usually best. That doesn’t mean I don’t do re-writes; of course I have to re-write. But I don’t like to re-write a scene from scratch if I already have something I’m happy with. Which is exactly what you may have to do if you don’t take care of your work.

Here are my simple rules for saving and protecting writing data:

  1. Save often, and increment your filenames.
  2. Use automatic (and free) online backup services to give you an automated backup you can recover even if your PC is lost or destroyed.
  3. Back up your files to external hard drive and/or CD or DVDs as well.

The good news is that all three of these steps are painless. Here are additional details on each one:

1. Save often and increment

  • I have MS Word set to autosave every 10 minutes. So even if I forget to manually save I should be able to recover most of my work in the event of a system crash.
  • Nonetheless, I hit save (Ctrl-S on a PC, Command (Apple)-S on a Mac) every time I stop typing.
  • I start every day with the previous day’s file then use Save-As to create a new file. I use the format ‘YY-MM-DD project name [draft status]‘, adding a -1, -2, -3 to the day field if I make any big shifts during the day such as deleting a section or moving things around.
    • ‘YY’ is the last two digits of the year, ‘MM’ is the two-digit month number, and you can probably figure out what DD is. If I do anything other than typing new material at the end of the document I want the previous version to be saved.
  • I keep my working directory for each project fairly clean by making a sub-folder called ‘YYYY drafts’ (YYYY is the four-digit year), and moving the previous day’s work to this folder every few days. I want to make sure that I open the right file every day; if you’ve ever accidentally opened an old draft and started editing it you know why this is important.
  • I make other directories for research, inspirational images, and make new directories for each new revision (draft, first round revisions, second round revisions, final) as well.

2. Use automated and free online backup services

  • You can choose to pay for additional storage and services, but for me two free services get the job done: Microsoft Live Mesh and MozyHome Remote Backup.
  • Microsoft Live Mesh: This beta service from MS automatically syncs up to 5 GB of data from specified directories to an online (secure) folder tied to your account name and password.
    • You can set it up on as many PCs as you want. I have a desktop, a laptop, and a netbook that all run Mesh. If I haven’t turned my netbook on in a few weeks it takes some time to update, but once it does all my recent work is on there and I can take it to the library or coffee shop to work. As long as I’m online, everything gets updated to my online folder with no action required on my part.
    • You can log into your online folder from anywhere using a standard browser—useful if you forget to bring a file to your publisher. If you’re using a shared PC, make sure to erase the data from your browsing session when you’re done so no one can log in to your account!
    • Mesh uploads new or changed files when your net connection is idle. Remember that you need to close the file in Word (or whatever application you use) before Mesh will be free to grab it and start uploading it. When you’re done writing, you need a few minutes for Mesh to do its work before you turn off your PC. If you quit Word and immediately turn off the PC, Mesh will have to wait until you turn it on again to upload the new files.
    • A word of warning: if you delete a file in hard drive folder Mesh is monitoring, Mesh will delete the file from your online folder as well. If you delete a file by accident and can’t recover it, immediately turn off Mesh on the affected PC. Then log in to the online folder and recover the file manually before turning Mesh back on.
  • MozyHome Online Backup: Mozy runs less frequently than Mesh—a once a day backup is standard. Like Mesh, you specify the backup folders, but with Mozy you can also specify individual files and file types. For instance, you could have it back up all .doc files, or everything in your My Documents folder. It’s very configurable.
    • I think of Mozy as more a last resort. Mesh is my every day tool; Mozy is a backup to my backup.
    • The current free allocation is 2 GB of files.

3. Back up your files to an external hard drive

  • Even for struggling writers, a big USB hard drive is cheap. Whether you use automated backup software (many drives come with free software) or do it manually, keep recent backups on hand.
  • Aside from documents, doing full image backups of your hard drive periodically is a good idea. Finding all the original discs and serial numbers for software is a pain; with an image backup if the disc goes down I can re-install the image on a replacement disc and be ready to go.

Here are a few other tips and tricks:

  • Use email to send yourself writing when you’re away from your PC. You can log in to your Gmail (or other email) from any shared PC and pound out a few pages of text. Email it to yourself and when you get home all you have to do is cut and paste it into your document.
  • Speaking of cutting and pasting, if you want to ensure that pasted text is in the same style as the rest of your document, use Edit > Paste Special > Paste as plain text to bring any text in as plain (Normal style) text, saving you from having to re-format it later. You will lose any italic or bold text from doing this though…
  • You can also save your work as an attachment and email it to yourself. This gives you a backup file on the Google (or other network) server.
  • Lastly, writing by hand in a notebook still works great! You’ll have to type it in later but that gives you a chance to do some clean-up work as you type it in. Keep a notebook handy at all times!

I’ve probably explained too much in this post—it’s simpler than I’ve made it appear with all my extra instructions. If you just use the basic three instructions and a little common sense you’ll be able to find a backup system that works for you.

Keep writing!

Things to Do While You’re Writing

August 18th, 2009

The blank page isn’t always your friend. Sometimes you feel like you’ve spent a little too much time with it. In times like these, ensure that you have some diversions nearby. This is not a comprehensive list by any means—I’m sure others have some great additions.

  • Play guitar. Or another instrument.
  • Carefully read through that new reference book—the history of medieval swordfighting, basic horsemanship, birds of north america—anything that you can rationalize as being helpful for your current project.
  • Tweet. Don’t forget to say that you’re writing a lot.
  • Talk to your dog or cat. If you find they have interesting things to say, write them down.
  • Update your Facebook page. Make sure to say that you’re writing a lot.
  • Get out a notepad and scribble some ideas for a new, unrelated project that might be interesting. Make sure to keep it in case you every actually want to follow through.
  • Play a videogame, especially if it has some possible relation to your project. For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy book, playing World of Warcraft may provide valuable inspiration.
  • Do something that makes you money. It’s nice to have money to buy more books. If they’re reference books, you may be able to expense them.
  • Put together an awesome MP3 playlist of inspirational music. It’s OK if this takes all day; the payoff will be worth it.
  • Come to think of it, you may need to organize your MP3 collection. It’s hard to write if you have unlabeled MP3s lying around. Or albums that lack the proper cover art.
  • Write. But only as a last resort.

Today’s Beowulf Snippet

August 13th, 2009

Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote yesterday for Beowulf Stormcrow, the book I’m trying to finish. I like throwing in the little ‘extra’ stories in the narrative, and this is one of ‘em:

***

They talked of small matters after that: the court fashions of Encaras, how horses in Nallen were being purchased and taken south, that the spring silt from the Sennel had been rich and the growing season was plentiful this summer. Eventually the talk slowed as the sky grew dark and the stars glistened high above the table’s flickering candle lanterns. Beowulf, who had only drunk watered wine, grew restless. He had tried to take an interest in the conversation about the Five Cities and had succeeded for a while. But that time had passed and he hungered for more exciting discussion. Where is the singing or saga-telling? Should I play my pipe to liven up the evening?

“Pardon, Born,” he said. “But is this how feasts end in your lands—with no music or stories shared?”

Born roused himself from the contemplation of the night sky. Charlyss leaned her head against his shoulder and he sought not to disturb her comfort. “Do you have skald talents you wish to share with your southern neighbors?”

“I am no skald, but I have some skill with the pipe. Perhaps I could relate a short saga if no one minds.”

“By all means,” said Jaspir. “Enliven our reverie with a bloodthirsty tale from the cold north.”

“They are not all bloody tales,” Beowulf said as he stood up to fetch his goat horn pipe.

When he returned he started the tale he had selected while he walked back and forth. It was the saga of the warrior woman Astrid who had left her husband Wardfris at home while she sailed her battle ship to sea in search of adventure. It was a simple tale, one that might be chanted and sung to introduce a greater saga such as the one of Od’s creation of the world or the ancient hero Olin (namesake to the current Skarlish ruler) who slew three giants in succession on a single day to win a prize of glittering gold from the dragon Ermsiggil whose lashing tail set the waves of the world in motion.

Astrid sailed far and wide, fighting all and overcoming every opponent she faced. Her ship grew heavy with treasure and she sang and danced with her crew, faces flushed with the glow of mead as they savored their triumphs. But when at last she returned home she found that her love had been killed in a raid on her village. Heartbroken, she took her ship into dark waters to seek Wardfris and sails there still, searching for her lost love. You can hear her cry in the sound of the waves crashing against the shore: WARD frissssss, WARD frissssss.

That was the simple story Beowulf had learned as a child and he knew the words of the four stanzas nearly by heart. The rest he could improvise. He was not reckoned a great singer among the Skarlish by any stretch, but his modest skills were amplified by the quiet night air and the absence of other diversions. He liked the lines about fighting best but he could feel the sorrow of Astrid as she searched the dark seas for her sweetheart.

He played the melody on his pipe then chanted the first stanza before singing the refrain:

I would search the dark seas

For my love, Wardfris

I would die a thousand deaths

In return for one lost kiss

The sea calls Wardfris

The sea calls Wardfris

By the second refrain, Charlyss joined in, and then Born and Jaspir too. Beowulf’s own rough voice was complemented by Charlyss’s sweet alto. Together they drew out Wardfrisss, deep and crashing on the first syllable and long and hissing on the second until it sounded like the sea itself sang beyond the trees that lined the clearing in front of Born’s house.

When Beowulf finished, the others applauded, and Born with them—but Beowulf noted that his eyes measured him carefully. There was more to Born than he realized at first. The man could be calm, yes, but he could also speak with power. And there was something in his gaze that suggested he saw further than other men and women.

He mentioned this to Thirl as they prepared to sleep. “How else could a man direct the activities of an insurgent force from a remote location such as this?” Thirl said. “And with no natural authority to boot—no generalship, government office, nothing. If Born could not lead we would not be gathered at his farm.”

“I reckon you’re right.”

Heartbroken,

Pantser or Plotter?

August 10th, 2009

Some writers don’t like to prepare any outline; they write by the seat of their pants. Others like to plot meticulously, honing their story and character progressions before they write a word of fiction. Within those two extremes lie a host of working methods–but ultimately all writers lean toward the pantser camp or the plotter camp.

I used to be a pantser–which was fine because I worked in shorter fiction. Now that I’m trying to write actual books I found I had to transform my planning style. Perhaps the most famous example of a pantser gone wrong right now is George RR Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire epic got bogged down in book four (which was of course eventually split into two books, the second of which is currently delayed with no publishing date). I’m a huge GRRM fan who loved the first three books of the series, but I was taken aback when I asked him at a booksigning for book three what his writing method was: was the plotting worked out on paper or did he carry the whole world in his head.

“It’s all in my head,” he confirmed, which blew my mind. I felt like a mere mortal in comparison (how could anyone keep such a complex world straight?) but when the publication of the fourth book began to drag I started to have doubts about his methodology. And when I got bogged down on my own Beowulf book I realized I needed to make a change.

I already had some background information written about my world; I codified this to make it easier for me to refer to it while writing. Most importantly, I started a simple 10-step outline starting from the beginning of the tale and ending with the final events. I knew where I wanted to go; it was the middle part that was a muddle in my mind. Working from both ends I eventually got a storyline I was happy with.

Another writer I know was horrified at this shift to a more craftsman-like approach. “You’ll take the magic out of your story,” he warned. But I haven’t found that to be the case. I write more confidently (and coherently) when I know what the following events will be. There are large gaps in my outline–and it’s still the ‘in-between’ bits that I struggle with. How do my characters travel the 120 miles between locations? What do they eat for dinner? What are they wearing? How much food do they need to carry? That sort of thing.

Sometimes I have success by doing micro-outlines of the action immediately ahead of me. Rather than writing fiction I write brief descriptions that I enclose in brackets so I can easily differentiate it from normal text. Without worrying about language I describe how a conversation will go, or how the give and take in a battle might proceed. With that in front of me I can concentrate on the language of pacing of the actual writing when I get to it.

I often start projects with nothing more than a vague idea. But after I get that bit of inspiration down on paper I turn to plotting techniques before I get too far in–because I’ve found this works for me.

For now at least. You never know when things will change and I’ll do whatever I feel the story requires.