Wonderland Press

Curious Fiction for Iconoclasts

Scrum vs. Writing

I just finished Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, by Jeff Sutherland.  Fun stuff, if you’re into process, which I am.  (If you’re not, you may want to skip this.)  It seems like a no-brainer:  meta-skills, like learning how to learn, make everything else easier, faster, and even more enjoyable.   Of course, I haven’t achieved light-speed yet, so obviously I need to read more of these books…

It struck me as I was reading this that many of the ideas behind Scrum and a lot of other business-process books come from how Toyota developed their business after WWII, with a focus on long-term goals, repeatable results with fewer defects, and constant improvement–a willingness to fail faster and improve therefrom.

As I was trying to translate the basic ideas into “how to write better and faster,” I kept coming back to something familiar:  Heinlein’s rules.  As an engineer, he was always interested, I think, in working out how to streamline and refine processes in order to do more work with less effort:  in several of his books his characters mention how “lazy” they are, and how it drove them to work smarter, not harder.  I suspect that even if he wasn’t directly aware of the work being done at Toyota in the Fifties, he was enough part of the zeitgeist that it probably wasn’t more than a couple of degrees of separation between him and what was being done in Japanese factories.

Heinlein’s rules:

  1. Write.  (Keep the focus on production, not planning.)
  2. Finish what you write.  (Don’t leave inventory on the floor.)
  3. Refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.  (Do it right the first time/only make changes the customer wants.)
  4. Put your story on the market.  (Ship the product.)
  5. Keep it in the market until it sells.  (Have faith in the product.)

Sounds like something Seth Godin would say.

But back to Scrum specifically.  The appendix of the book has a brief list of steps on how to accomplish scrum:

  1. Pick a product owner (someone who focuses on what the customer wants).
  2. Pick a team (who will do the work).
  3. Pick a scrum master (who will focus on eliminating waste/anything that slows the team down).
  4. Create/prioritize a product backlog (a high-level set of goals that will accomplish what the customer wants).
  5. Refine/estimate the product backlog (using the pareto principal, strip down the backlog to approximately 20% of the most valuable features; estimate work to be done. I actually did this on a hypothetical historical romance novel and discovered some interesting things about what I really wanted in such a novel versus a huge list of general expectations).
  6. Plan a “sprint” of no more than a month’s length, at the end of which is a deliverable or demo-able product.
  7. Make work visible (whiteboard!).
  8. Daily standup/scrum meeting (a.  What did you do yesterday to help the team finish the sprint? b.  what will you do today to help the team finish the sprint? c.  Is there any obstacle blocking you or the team from achieving the sprint goal?)
  9. Sprint review/demo (sprint results shown to the customer and everyone with a stake, or in fact anyone who wants to show up).
  10. Sprint retrospective (lessons learned).
  11. Start next cycle.

The funny thing is that one of the best things I’ve learned lately as far as meta-writer-process goes is to do Julia Cameron’s morning pages on a fairly regular basis, in which I do pretty much the steps as listed, as well as letting the subconscious babble about new ideas, research, lessons learned, etc.  Looks a lot like a daily scrum meeting.

Here’s my best guess for how to translate the list above into writer process.  It involves condensing some things (as a writer, you wear all the hats).

Mostly a plotter:

  1. Story/marketing development (synopsis/pitch development, finding an audience, working through the core elements of what makes a story satisfying to that audience versus what common knowledge says has to go in that story).
  2. Draft planning (outlining, if applicable).
  3. Morning pages.
  4. Writing draft.
  5. Read through/delivery to betas/delivery to general readers (submission/indie).
  6. Brutally honest assessment of whether you accomplished requirements from step 1, lessons learned, what could have gone better/what went well.
  7. Start next cycle.

Mostly a pantser:

  1. Draft planning (how long the draft will take, how big of a project you think this is, daily wordcount/scene goals–not outlining).
  2. Morning pages.
  3. Writing draft.
  4. Structure analysis (finding out if you have all the scenes, in right order, etc.).
  5. Story/marketing development (synopsis/pitch development, finding an audience, working through the core elements of what makes a story satisfying to that audience versus what common knowledge says has to go in that story).
  6. Read through/delivery to betas/delivery to general readers (submission/indie).
  7. Brutally honest assessment of whether you accomplished requirements from step 1, lessons learned, what could have gone better/what went well.
  8. Start next cycle.

I tend to think in terms of being a plotter, even though I’m not really one anymore, so here’s how I think it might work for me:

  1. Story/marketing development (synopsis/pitch development, finding an audience, working through the core elements of what makes a story satisfying to that audience versus what common knowledge says has to go in that story).
  2. Morning pages.
  3. Writing.
  4. Read through/betas/delivery to readers
  5. Brutally honest assessment time (including structure analysis).
  6. Start next cycle.

The big change for me (at the moment) would be the first step, which I’ve been developing for a while in a half-assed fashion, but in such a way that doesn’t prevent me from running down a lot of blind alleys:  I tend to write a lot of stories that are unreasonable from a reader’s point of view.  (“Who is my intended reader and why would they enjoy this?” “Dunno.”)  I do write a log line and often a brief synopsis to get a feel for the voice and conflict, sometimes the structure of what I want to play with, but I don’t always carry that through to what does this do for my readers?  A lot of the time I don’t even ask what does this do for me?  Will I have fun writing this?  What is the awesomeness factor?

Which is both sad and has, yes, been a huge factor in not getting non-client writing done/published this year.

Another change would be hidden in the morning pages:  I haven’t been asking myself what’s in the way of accomplishing things on a regular basis, let alone what would make me happier/more satisfied with what I’m doing.  I’ve been listening to myself bitch about things in general and trying to work out best practices (like getting enough sleep, exercise, etc.), but I haven’t been thinking in terms of continuous improvement.  Learning in general, yes, but not what’s getting in the way on X project, how I can make it more enjoyable to work on today.

We’ll see how it goes.

 

How to add character emotion without being annoyingly blatant.

A question came up on how to display emotions of characters without blatantly stating them.  My take on it goes like this:

We can’t really talk about how to write character emotions without taking a second to lay down a base assumption about fiction:  The most efficient way is generally not the best way.

The most efficient way to tell a story is via log line:  Detective discovers who murdered his partner.  Woman flees suffocating life in search of adventure, only to find another suffocation.  Guy comes back to hometown to write book, ends up killing girlfriend and her vampire master.

The Maltese Falcon.  The Haunting of Hill House.  ‘Salem’s Lot.

These log lines might be pretty efficient, but they suck as fiction.

Granted, I’m not the world’s best writer, not even close.  But from as far as I’ve progressed, I can see three basic stages of how to write character emotion:

1.  He felt happy.

2.  He held the woman’s hand and skipped.

3.  The setting sun hit the lake like fireworks.  She’d said she wanted to go west with him.  Him!  Not to Colorado, or California, or across the Pacific.  Just west, like it was a country that stretched from this life to the next.  West, forever west, blindingly west, into the sunset, and beyond.

(Let’s say this is the last sentence in a story:  no conflict necessary, the setting has already been described, we already know the characters and the plot.)

Type one is the blatantly obvious statement.  It is short, efficient, and accurate.  The problem is that it’s boring to read.  Why is it boring, though?  What makes that statement, in and of itself, boring?  What makes it poor fiction?

  • It’s too efficient: it rushes through what most of us, in real life, would like to savor (happiness).
  • It doesn’t spark emotion in us as readers.  This doesn’t always mean feeling the same thing the character is feeling–we might be hating this character right now, because, oh, he’s forcing this woman to marry him.
  • It doesn’t give us a vicarious glimpse into the character’s mind or feelings.

Type two is “show, don’t tell.”  It is less short, less efficient, and much less accurate.  We can’t say for sure whether the character is happy or not–he’s holding a woman’s hand and skipping.  Probably he’s happy.  Not definitely.  But probably.  But it is also better fiction.  Some writers (Hemingway) can stop at this point and just write what is objectively going on, and leave enough between the lines that an entire story can be inferred from a few sparse lines.  Most writers, however, don’t do this.

What are the limitations of “show, don’t tell”:

  • It requires some serious detective work on the part of the reader to put together the emotions of the characters and assumes that the writer is a master at laying down clues.
  • It doesn’t spark emotion.  If the readers feel emotions during a story primarily based on “show, don’t tell,” then the emotions are mostly coming from the reader:  the reader is a talented empath or has very similar assumptions to the author.  Others may find the work dry or belittling.
  • It doesn’t give us a glimpse into the character’s mind or feelings.  Again, a good empath or someone who’s gone through a similar experience might pick up on this stuff; others will insert emotions willy-nilly.

Type three is tight POV writing, giving all statements in the story directly from the brain of the character.  It is (in my unmasterful hands) much longer, less efficient–but it contains a lot of non-blatant emotion.

  • It still requires some detective work, but the work isn’t in pure, observable facts, but also the opinions and observations of the character, which provide more information.
  • It sparks emotion, even if it’s contempt for this guy taking things for granted.
  • It gives us a strong glimpse of the character’s thoughts and feelings.

The difference here is that instead of telling you the character’s feelings or showing you the character’s actions as though they were a doll (both 3rd-person distant or omniscient POV things), I’ve brought the POV in very tight, so that I, the author, am not in the picture.  There is nobody “telling” you this story, only the character being happy and sharing his opinion.

Get into the character’s head and see, hear, feel, taste, touch, etc., what the character does, colored by the emotions and opinions of the character.  This is easier said than done.  Start by 1) inserting the five main senses into your writing, from the character’s POV, and 2) typing in bits of various other writers’ work that seem to be highly emotional without actually naming the emotion.  There are a million ways to do this.

Does that mean that steps 1 and 2 have no place in writing?  Of course not.  It’s just a matter of knowing when to use them.

If you want to keep a reader from experiencing the same emotion as a character, by all means, tell them “He was happy.”  If you want to tell the reader that the character’s lying to themselves–”He was happy” is a decent clue.

A trick in mysteries is often to write most of the book in that third type of writing, highly personal and emotional, and hide the clues to what the character is really feeling in type 2 clues (try The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for a good example of this, or even The Maltese Falcon).

Professional writers use all three types all the time–it’s just that they use them on purpose, to get the reader to experience a particular emotion in a particular way.

Some examples:

The Maltese Falcon.

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness.  Her eyes were brown and playful in a slim boyish face.  She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said:  “There’s a girl wants to see you.  Her name’s Wonderly.”

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere.  Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow.  She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes.  The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red.  White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

First paragraph:  Spade’s secretary.  Second paragraph:  the client.

These are mostly type 2 details, observable facts, but they’re provided within the framework of a type 3 character who happens to be a detective and very much about the observable facts.   Type 3 details (opinions) for secretary (some of them):  lanky, sunburned, clung, playful, slim, boyish.  Type 3 details (opinions) for client:  pliantly, slender, erect, high-breasted, narrow, darkly, brightly, glistened, timid.

In spade’s opinion, the secretary is a good girl, and he loves her, but doesn’t particularly want to sleep with her.  On the other hand, the client is a femme fatale, both “weak” (pliant, slender, narrow, timid) and sexy-looking (erect, high-breasted), as well as threateningly dangerous (darkly, glistened).

We know from these two paragraphs how he feels about these two women without him having to say; we’re also provided physical descriptions of the two characters (handy) as well as some foreshadowing about the ending.

The Haunting of Hill House.

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House.  The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister.  She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.  This was owing largely to the eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother, which had left her with some proficiency as a nurse and an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking.  She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.  Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.  Her name had turned up on Dr. Montague’s list because one day, when she was twelve years old and her sister was eighteen, and their father had been dead for not quite a month, showers of stones had fallen on their house, without any warning or any indication of purpose or reason, dropping from the ceilings, rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof.  The stones continued intermittently for three days, during which time Eleanor and her sister were less unnerved by the stones than by the neighbors and sightseers who gathered daily outside the front door, and by their mother’s blind, hysterical insistence that all of this was due to malicious, backbiting people on the block who had had it in for her ever since she came.  After three days Eleanor and her sister were removed to the house of a friend, and the stones stopped falling, nor did they ever return, although Eleanor and her sister and her mother went back to living in the house, and the feud with the entire neighborhood was never ended.  The story had been forgotten by everyone except the people Dr. Montague consulted; it had certainly been forgotten by Eleanor and her sister, each of whom had supposed at the time that the other was responsible.

This is the paragraph introducing the main character, a few pages in from the opening, which introduces 1) the house, 2) Dr. Montague and his plan to invite possible psychics to the house, and then 3) Eleanor.

In this paragraph, we see lots of type 1 stuff; it comes right out and tells us who Eleanor hates and loves.  This serves a couple of purposes.  1) We don’t actually have to suffer through Eleanor’s life before she came to the house.  It’s miserable, and it’s backstory, moving on.  2) It conceals the fact that Eleanor hates someone else even more than she hates the people named here.  Writers: we’re tricky.

There are lots of type 2 details, too: the whole story about the mysterious stone-dropping…and the fact that she has no memory of it…and the fact that she blamed her sister for it.  And lots of other things.

It looks like a paragraph full of nothing but type 1 and 2 details, until you read the entire book and realize that Eleanor is not to be trusted:  all of the things in this paragraph are true, but none of them tell the whole story.  In Eleanor’s opinion, things are simple and straightforward.  Later in the story, Eleanor opens up and there’s a ton of type 3 writing–but as you can see, lots of reasons to use type 1 and type 2.

 

‘Salem’s Lot.

Interesting bit of trivia, the main story (after the frame story) of ‘Salem’s Lot starts with a quote from The Haunting of Hill House.

By the time he had passed Portland going north on the turnpike, Ben Mears had begun to feel a not unpleasurable tingle of excitement in his belly.  It was September 5, 1975, and summer was enjoying her final grand fling.  The trees were bursting with green, the sky was a high, soft blue, and just over the Falmouth town line he saw two boys walking a road parallel to the expressway with fishing rods on their shoulders like carbines.

He switched to the travel lane, slowed to the minimum turnpike speed, and began to look for anything that would jog his memory.  There was nothing at first, and he tried to caution himself against almost sure disappointment.  You were nine then.  That’s twenty-five years of water under the bridge.  Places change.  Like people.

In those days the four-lane 295 hadn’t existed.  If you wanted to go to Portland from the Lot, you went out Route 12 to Falmouth and then got on Number 1.  Time had marched on.

Stop that shit.

But it was hard to stop.  It was hard to stop when–

A big BSA cycle with jacked handlebars suddenly roared past him in the passing lane, a kid in a T-shirt driving, a girl in a red cloth jacket and huge mirror-lensed sunglasses riding pillion behind him.  They cut in a little too quickly and he overreacted, jamming on his brakes and laying both hands on the horn.  The BSA sped up, belching blue smoke from its exhaust, and the girl jabbed her middle finger back at him.

He resumed speed, wishing for a cigarette.  His hands were trembling slightly.  The BSA was almost out of sight now, moving fast.  The kids.  The goddamned kids.  Memories tried to crowd in on him, memories of a more recent vintage.  He pushed them away.  He hadn’t been on a motorcycle in two years.  He planned never to ride on one again.

Here we see the character’s emotions do a 180.  The writer tells us that the character feels “a not unpleasurable tingle of excitement,” but he doesn’t say, “He felt excited.”  The character is one who analyzes himself regularly throughout the book–an intellectual trying to stay in touch with his emotions.  The writer doesn’t analyze the character’s emotions, that is–the character does, through his own senses and opinions.

There isn’t a line of this story that isn’t 100% type-3 writing first and foremost…but there are a few type-2 clues in there, too:  Places change.  Like people.  Time had marched on.  Then: But it was hard to stop.  It was hard to stop when–

The character, in a good mood, tells himself some lies: places change, people change, time moves on.  But really it hasn’t; he’s still suffering from the accidental death of his wife in a motorcycle accident, and he’s coming back to ‘Salem’s Lot in order to conquer a life-long nightmare he picked up from Marsten House, and no, people haven’t really changed, as we see shortly after this section, when we start flipping through the heads of a number of townspeople.

There are a ton of other things going on in these sections, of course–but I hope you’re seeing that the general trick is to make sure that you, the writer, are solidly seeing the world through the character’s eyes; it’s the matrix through which you can tell the story without being blatant, even if, sometimes, you use techniques that appear blatant on the face of things.

 

 

 

 

 

Musings on The Haunting of Hill House

Having just reread The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (and having typed some parts of it in), I’m struck  by…I don’t know if I can sum this up well, but here goes:

Classic ghost stories are often about things that the characters (and perhaps the audience) absolutely, positively MUST NOT KNOW; if you confront them directly (as Hamlet and many of Poe’s narrators do), you will go mad. Well, unless it’s A Christmas Carol; Scrooge confronts his ghosts and actually takes advice from them, confronts what he must not know–and changes. Otherwise characters in a ghost story are pretty much screwed or get out by the skin of their teeth, as ignorant as they were before they went in.

Some examples:

  • The Turn of the Screw–children must not know about sex.
  • The Shining–rich people suck.
  • The Empty House (Blackwood)–servants are human and might not like us.
  • The Judge’s House (Stoker)–”justice” isn’t logical, but political.
  • Caterpillars (Benson)–cancer strikes by chance, not on “sinners” or for some other spiritually preventable reason.

The Haunting of Hill House seems to fit that pattern, but in a strange way.

–don’t read further if you don’t want spoilers–

First, the house itself isn’t haunted, but merely insane.  Second, Eleanor, or at least the part of her that was split off in childhood, is a poltergeist (at least, that’s how I take it).  So either there are two hauntings, or one, or none, depending on how you count it.

Eleanor is trapped in her awful, ugly life; she must not know that, or she’ll go mad (and does).  The house (and its attendants, even the town around it) comes across as both an unavoidably physical house (what descriptions, eh?) and as a metaphor for the claustrophobic society that Eleanor’s trapped in.

The first paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The last paragraph:

Mrs. Sanderson was enormously relieved to hear that Dr. Montague and his party had left Hill House; she would have turned them out, she told the family lawyer, if Dr. Montague had shown any sign of wanting to stay. Theodora’s friend, mollified and contrite, was delighted to see Theodora back so soon; Luke took himself off to Paris, where his aunt fervently hoped he would stay for a while. Dr. Montague finally retired from active scholarly pursuits after the cool, almost contemptuous reception of his preliminary article analyzing the psychic phenomena of Hill House. Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

First paragraph starts with a dream; last paragraph starts with rules, order, too-solid reality.  The others, who have not really been touched by any kind of understanding of the house, escape blithely unscathed.  (Although Theodora, the psychic, might have understood how the trapped Eleanor was passively-aggressively lashing out at everyone around her via the poltergeist.)

So much for Eleanor.

I have to wonder how often the haunted house itself is the terrifying presence that must not be known or understood.  I can’t think of anything else at the moment–it’s always a ghost, the presence of someone or something that died, and not the house itself.  But I suppose if you want to criticize something as broad as “society,” then maybe something as impersonal as a house is necessary.

Writerly Ramble: Goals vs. Metrics

So a couple of years ago I started tracking my word counts:  how many new words produced daily.  I did pretty well, producing over half a million words two years running.  Over a million words!  Woo!

However…at the same time I started tracking word counts, I experienced a massive reduction in putting out new indie work, and in writing non-ghostwritten novels.

I’m sure there are multiple factors going into this.  At the same time that I started tracking word counts, I started having more luck getting ghostwriting jobs, and in fact picked up a ghostwriting job that has since turned into a kind of patronage.  It still blows my mind.  Not to say that I’m self-supporting as a freelancer yet; sadly, it’s taken me a long time to establish in my own mind that my time is pretty freaking valuable, and I’ve slaved over  a lot of projects that paid peanuts.

Regrets?  Only that I didn’t start charging anything approximating a living wage sooner.  I’ve loved most of the projects that I’ve been on, whether they’ve paid well or not.

However, learning how to charge even remotely appropriately for my time (I’m not there yet, really) and I’m not making enough as a freelancer to be able to invest a lot of time in indie publishing:  short-term bills make it hard to set aside time to invest in myself in a lot of ways, from indie publishing to learning new skills to simply taking time to exercise and remember to eat on a daily basis.

And that metric.  Producing wordcount.  Always more wordcount.

It didn’t hurt my short story writing capability.  I’d sit down, pound out a story in a morning, and go back to editing or what have you in the afternoon.  Write, clean up, and send:  total time, around one hour per thousand words.  Some good ones, some bad ones, mostly incremental gains.  Even if I’d sold every single one of them at professional rates, I wouldn’t have made a living wage at writing them; they were just stress relief.

But novels take more thought.  Not to write, but to edit.  Because I change the rules of a fictional world as I go, getting new ideas and going, “Yeah, I’ll go back and fix that detail later.”

And the more I focused on getting wordcount out, the less I was willing to write or edit novels.  Because it cut into my wordcount.  I basically wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo and abandoned it, promising myself that I’d edit it–but not doing so.  Because wordcount.

Is my goal just to write?

I’m not saying it’s a bad goal.  I have an extra million words under my belt; I wrote a lot of short stories, some of which were published.  Personally, I can’t tell if I’m a better writer or not–but then again, every time I try to establish that I am a better writer, I end up stepping on my feet and writing something completely asinine.  So it’s better that I work toward being a better writer but not really worry about whether I’ve achieved it.

Not a bad goal.  The problem is that those million words didn’t turn into books that I can share with people publicly; most of those words are a) ghostwriting or b) languishing novels.

So I’ve abandoned wordcount.

It started at the beginning of the year, when I was struggling to keep my head above water due to a bunch of freelancing, combined with a period where I had to rewrite a pair of stories so often that I probably wrote over 15K for each  5K short story.  They were above my pay grade, I think–but I like both of them.

Finally this month, I admitted that I was done tracking wordcount.  It’s sad, but it has been holding me back.

The day after I did that, I had a 7K day, and I’ve written, I don’t know, probably something like 40K over the last two weeks between ghosting and personal writing, as well as almost completely rewriting the last episode of Alice so it had the right ending.

It’s been a relief, to be honest.

But now what?

I’ve counted rejections.  I’ve blogged three times a week.  I’ve put up a short story up on Kindle a week.  I’ve counted words.  Those were all helpful metrics…until they got in the way of my goals.

I have maybe ten novels on my hard drive to edit and put out.  A bajillion stories to be edited and posted individually or in collections.

I’ve been working on what kind of metric would help me put more work out into the world, and I haven’t come up with a whole lot of squat, other than setting up a Patreon page, although I have been meaning to do that, and I’ll write about my thoughts on that in a bit.

I do know the metric needs to:

  • Help me get more work past the first-draft stage, through editing, and out into the hands of readers–indie, small press, big traditional.
  • And yet be adaptable enough that I’m not killing the goose of inspiration with weekly (and non-promoted!) releases.

I feel like, in an ideal world, a reasonable goal would be to put out one short story or serial section per month.  But when I think like that – it triggers anxiety.  Not because I can’t get a serial section out per month.  But because I think, “That’s not good enough.  Two a week.  Four.  Four a week.”

And beating myself up over unreasonable goals that I secretly set for myself no matter what my stated goals are is not conducive to actual creativity.  Plus?  When I was doing that, I never did any promotion, just a quick announcement on Facebook and my blog. Also not the secret to a successful writing career.

And I know I am not the kind of person who can just do things, one after the other, on a daily basis, without some kind of measurement going on.  Stuff that isn’t measured slides in my world.

Goal:  Become a successful fiction writer, with success being defined as “able to support myself with my fiction writing.”

Metric: In progress.

 

 

 

Promo Friday: Alice’s Adventures in Underland and Kobo Promo Momo

This Friday, for our fabulous Friday promotion, I have stuff of my own to talk up.

AliceB1E7_Cover_Mini

 

Alice:

The last episode of Alice’s Adventures in Underland: The Queen of Still Hearts is up.  ERK.  I may have given myself an ulcer over it, although it does now have the ending that really ought to be there instead of the ending I originally chickened out over.

This is a zombie book, after all.

You can find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and some other places.

Next up, I will be putting together the collected edition (and print book) so I can have them out this year, which is the 150th anniversary of the book’s being published; I will very shortly be looking for beta readers on the collected edition, if you’re at all interested.

Crows-3b

Kobo Promo:

My short story collection, A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters & the Macabre, is discounted at Kobo for 30% off from March 27-30th with the code GET30.  You may, however, pick it up pretty much anywhere you like.

You can also get 30% off many other ebooks from Kobo using the same code.  The page listing the applicable books is here.

 

Thank you!

Writerly Ramble: Spine

I just finished William S. Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and, strangely, what I took out of it was a better understanding of the idea of spine.

What I usually get when I ask about spine is this slightly annoyed look that I always end up interpreting as shouldn’t you know this already? Well, yes, I’ve heard all kinds of things about spine and how it supports your story.  As it turns out, metaphors don’t actually tell you every damn functional technique you need to know about the words they describe, and that spine is a lot more important in screenwriting than it is in writing novels or even short stories, and that I mostly speak to fiction writers who may or may not have as good an understanding of spine as they think they do.

Spine.

Something about it reminds me of the idea, again from movies, that dialog can be too “on the nose.”  I struggled with it initially.  Why would having characters come out and say what they actually meant be problematic–as long as it was in character voice?

But then I realized that, in fiction, my characters speak outright truth mainly as part of their internal POV voices.

An example of truth as part of POV in fiction:

The field of green wheat shivered as the early glow of the sunrise touched the dew.  The wheat knew what was coming, getting roasted under that sun.  It was what that field lived and died and would eventually be plowed under for, making more wheat to roast under that sun, generation upon generation.

Maisie shaded her eyes, waiting for the edge of the sun to crest the trees that marked the Binders’ farm.  

All kinds of things had to be harvested, if you wanted to make room for new wheat. 

And besides, Marcus Binder had had it coming.

Now, say, you had to write that as a screenplay:

EXT. FARM – PORCH FACING FIELD OF WHEAT

A golden sunrise just about to begin over a field of green wheat, the light shimmering on the dew, an early morning hush.  In the distance, MARCUS BINDER’s farm and the trees surrounding it.  We know what’s waiting for the cops.

MAISIE stands on her porch and stares at the sunrise coming up behind MARCUS’s farm.  She has a mug of coffee: you know she’s in a thinkin’ mood.

MAISIE

I killed you because you tried to hurt my wheat.

[Roll credits.]

That dialog.  Too on the nose.  How about:

EXT. FARM – PORCH, FACING FIELD OF WHEAT

A golden sunrise just about to begin over a field of green wheat, the light shimmering on the dew, an early morning hush.  In the distance, MARCUS BINDER’s farm and the trees surrounding it.  We know what’s waiting for the cops.

MAISIE stands on her porch and stares at the sunrise coming up behind MARCUS’s farm.  She has a mug of coffee: you know she’s in a thinkin’ mood.

MAISIE

When it’s my time, Marcus Binder, I won’t make such a damn fuss about being plowed under…and making room for new wheat.

[Roll credits.]

Okay, you know.  Not brilliant.  But at least not as jarringly off as the line about “I killed you because you tried to hurt my wheat.”

I’m going to put forth a tentative idea about spine.  I haven’t tested it–just brainstorming.

As fiction writers, we often see a certain type of story from beginning writers, who, if we’re being honest with ourselves, include ourselves.  I think it’s one of the reasons we find reading our own works so unnerving:  we think we’re writing this great masterpiece, and really it’s just a rant.

THE HARANGUING STORY ABOUT SOMETHING WE FEEL PASSIONATELY ABOUT always starts out as this magnificent epic (cue the swelling music) and always ends up as something we shove in the drawer.  Or just delete.

Or, even worse, keep harping on about how nobody recognizes our greatness.

The characters are either “true to life” or else so simplistic you can see the hand at the bottom of the sock puppet as they mouth their lines.  Let me tell you the plot:  there is an injustice in the world, which, by the powers of karma, comes back to bite the ass of the perpetrator (the main character, the good guy, is almost incidental–except for the fight scene at the end, which concludes in a triumphant manner).  Victory for everyone deserving, or at least horrible death for everyone not deserving!  The main character might even feel regret for the (deserved) way that the undeserving have met their ends!  Huzzah!

The story, let us say, is entirely too on the nose.

This is not to say that the impulse is necessarily bad (although it often is).  Wanting our chosen ones to triumph over everyone else is a total reader delight.  But most of us have come to realize that when things go too smoothly in real life, what it means is that someone is setting us up to get screwed over.  It’s too good to be true.  We are unable to really get behind events that are too on the nose, too much of a wish fulfillment, because we’ve been conditioned all our lives to be wary of that crap, from pyramid schemes to miracle cures to the people at the front door who swear they aren’t trying to sell us something.

Now, if we set a few obstacles in the way of the main character, and make them a little less black and white, and add a few distractions in the form of other people who aren’t just there to make things easier for the main character, why, then we start to think that maybe we can let down our guards and enjoy what’s going on.

We know how stories are going to end.  Stories that don’t end predictably make most audiences feel robbed.  I hate Old Yeller and Bridge to Terabitha, not because they discuss death, but because they pull the rug out from under your feet, right at the end.  (Best movie about death ever:  E.T.)

So how do you make a story that says what you want to say, but doesn’t come right out and say it?

That’s a whole other topic.

But I’d like to suggest that spine is that secret, on-the-nose story that you really wanted to tell in the first place, hidden under all the stuff you do to keep the reader from sadly setting the book aside and going, “Couldn’t happen.  Not even in a made-up world.”

I just really wanted to tell you that people die and have to leave:  E.T.

I just really wanted to tell you that the good guys not only win, but are so good that they make evil people become good:  Star Wars.

I just really wanted to tell you that the little guy wins sometimes, for a little while:  Firefly.  The Lord of the Rings.  Probably a thousand other stories I could come up with off the top of my head.

I couldn’t tell you how to design or edit for a spine, as opposed to outlining a plot.  Not yet.  But it kind of blows my mind that you can say something so completely and utterly cheesy (and heartwarming) that we couldn’t buy it, if you told us outright what you were trying to say.

Promo Friday: The Horror Reading Project

I am on a horror reading project with two friends of mine and yours, MB Partlow and Shannon Lawrence, and am currently working on the Nightmare Magazine Top 100 Horror Books list.  I am reading (or re-reading) everything that I don’t have on Goodreads.  You can find the entire list of what I’ve read so far (and my reviews) here, on Goodreads.

It turns out that I’ve read far more science fiction and fantasy than I ever did horror, although admittedly the Nightmare list is extremely shy on ghost stories and work before, say, 1960.  The Turn of the Screw, the Hitchcock collections, the entirety of Edgar Allan Poe, the creeptastic critter and ghost stories from Algernon Blackwood, EF Benson, F Marion Crawford – missing, all missing.  Not a single Edward Gorey cover.

But it turns out that’s probably for the best:  I’ve already read those!

So far my impressions have been that:

  1. There was a period where Women Are Either Evil or Stupid was the dominant theme.  Aside from questions of whether books with this theme are trying to subtly undermine that perception, buhhhh.  So dull.  Plus, as a reasonably proficient mystery reader, I just keep going, “What is the ulterior motive here? Is the entirety of this story a coverup for something even worse that the supposedly-innocent or otherwise redeemed main character actually did?  The main character’s the murderer, right?  Because clues.”
  2. It is almost impossible for a horror novel to make you jump out of your seat; conversely, creeping awful dread seems to be even easier.  And that moment when you’ve been reading a story and you realize there was something the writer didn’t bother to spell out in the text unfolds in front of you, and you’re climbing up the seat.
  3. It’s really hard to make gore stand out in fiction, but man can Clive Barker pull it off.

So far, 22 books in, my favorites out of the list are:

  • The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker
  • Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, ed. by Ellen Datlow (I think this may be my favorite collection edited by her, and I really like her stuff)
  • The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty, which is even scarier now that I’m a parent

Some happy discoveries:

  • Richard Matheson short stories are an absolute pleasure
  • So are Ramsey Campbell short stories, generally
  • I liked the Poppy Z. Brite novels better than I thought I would–and Love in Vein less

All in all, I’m going to say that if you’re looking to get into horror, you should pick up Darkness first; it covers two decades of the best-of-the-best of horror, with not a single skim-worthy story.

So that’s my recommendation for Friday :)

 

 

 

The Old Gadget in the Back of the Writing Drawer

It’s so hard to even think with the news about Terry Pratchett and other things going on.

This morning after journaling (why deep things hit me after I’ve walked away from the paper I don’t know, but they do), I realized that there is this idea in my writing space that shouldn’t be there and needs to be kicked out.

I treat short stories like appetizers or amuse-bouches–experimental, intense things. I treat novels like they should not be that intense or experimental. Which means, right now, I have trouble finishing anything longer than a short story OR that I’m not ghosting, because my brain shuts down. Short stories should be appetizers; novels should be meat and potatoes.  All else is madness.

And yet my favorite writers are Lewis Carroll, Gene Wolfe, Jorge Borges, Carol Berg, Steven Brust, and, yes, Terry Pratchett.

All of them are complex writers who do not write meat and potatoes, or who started out writing not-meat-and-potatoes and gradually learned to disguise the naturally exotic dishes they were whipping up, so that the meat was liberally mixed with blood, ginger, cricket flour, and LSD.

I have come to the conclusion that it is not necessary or desireable for me to write meat and potato novels.  I, in fact, suck at it.  I do not believe that if only I tried a little harder, I would be good at it, or that if I were it would make me happy.

I was built, or made, or called, or what have you, to write weird and wonderful (and horrible!) things, carefully unfolding what we’ve decided was “normal” and revealing its secret heart. I try, in my ordinary life, to be kind and funny and a good listener, but that’s not really all I am, and if I have to only be the person that goes over well at parties, the hell with it, I’m going back to technical writing, which pays better than what most commercial writers make.

Trying to write other people’s books is like taking someone else’s prescription meds.  They may be drugs that have worked for millions, but they do not necessarily work for me.

I’m not saying I’m a great writer. Not that. Wanting to write the weird and wonderful isn’t the same as being good at it. But I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy writing for trying to be commercial.  And that’s both stupid and sad.

And I’m not saying commerical is bad.  I will study the commercial; I will read it; I will steal from it; I will love it.  I will, in fact, congratulate myself if I ever become commercial, much the same say Bob Dylan pats himself on the back for writing some actual blues now and then.  But Bob Dylan, no matter how much he wants to write the blues, is still Bob Dylan, and I’m still me.

And so, this idea that novels should be meat and potatoes, I lay you down on the heap of things that I’m taking to Goodwill later today.   Thank you for showing me a path that wasn’t mine to take.  I will cross it from time to time, I will find other wanderers and talk their ears off, I will continue to be kind and funny and a good listener inasmuch as I can.  But I have other things to do, and so off you go, with all the shirts and books and luggage and kitchen gadgets that I never got around to using and was never in love with anyway.

My only real regret is that I can’t get a receipt for you, for tax purposes.  Or post you on Craigslist.  I’m pretty sure you’re worth something, if I could have only figured out what.

Update:

Delivered a carload of stuff to Goodwill.  Secretly dropped off novilus horribilis while I was there…came home and edited the last Alice chapter for four hours.  Ahhhh, it is so nice to be free.

Promo Friday: February’s Recommended Reading

On a scale of 1-10, here are my eights and nines, the nines being starred.  No tens this month.

Notes:

  • Fantastic Stories does more reprints than originals (I’m trying to skip the reprints so I have more time for originals), but the two originals were both eights this month.
  • Nightmare does half and half on reprints; both their originals pleased me quite a bit this month.
  • Fireside Fiction was an eight, a nine, and two sevens.  High-five.
  • If you are looking for surreal fantasy, Lackington’s is the way to go this month.  They didn’t all hit for me, but man did they commit to their subgenre.
  • This month was a good reading month, with lots of sevens supporting these eights and nines.  Not a lot of “I normally hate this kind of story but…” stories, unlike last month.  Not a lot of straight action stories this month to get the blood pumping, let alone ones that knocked it out of the park.  Hm.

Heirloom Pieces” – Lisa L. Hannett, in Apex Magazine, Issue 69.  SF.  “Catering was potluck. Potluck, for God’s sake.” A nice, twisty story.

The King in the Cathedral” – Rich Larson, in Beyond Ceaseless Skies, Issue 166.  Fantasy.  Personally, I like to think the game they’re playing is really Settlers of Cataan and that’s how the plot of the movie’s going to go.  It should.

Meshed” - also by Rich Larson, in Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 101.  SF.  Shares a lot of subtler elements with the previous stories.  I should look this guy up; I like his stuff.

Weight of the World” – Jose Pablo Iriarte, in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Feb 2015.  SF.  “We weren’t going to Earth to bury my boy. We weren’t.”

She Opened Her Arms” – Amanda C. Davis, in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Feb 2015.  Fantasy.  “Just think how smart he’d be if he were normal.”

*”How the Grail Came to the Fisher King” – Sarah Avery, in Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Issue 5.  Fantasy.  “Sir Percival spurred the borrowed police horse as far as the corner of York Avenue and 67th…” Especially good.

*”To Fall, and Pause, and Fall” – Lisa Nohealani Morton, in Fireside Fiction, Issue 20.  SF Horror.  Wolfian, with the ending of the plot buried in the middle. Suggest reading it twice, if you like stories you have to read twice.

A Silly Love Story” – Nino Cipri, in Fireside Fiction, Issue 20.  Fantasy. “There is something haunting Jeremy’s closet.” 

*”Duplicate” – Crystal Lynn Hilbert, in Flash Fiction Online, Feb 2015. “On the stand, I plead the fifth. A day passes while they argue whether I am able to.
I am a copy, they say. I am not the real woman. She is nearing thirty; I am barely three years old.”  Especially good.  More pure story in [cough] words than I can usually pack into ten thousand.

Unravelling” – Julia August, in Lackington’s, Issue 5.  Surreal fantasy.  ““Follow your dreams,” she said and flicked her spindle so that the crosspieces blurred. It was a Turkish spindle of the sort that comes apart into wooden fragments. I couldn’t see her eyes, which troubled me. ‘Yes. That sounds good.’”

After the Rain” – Polenth Blake, in Lackington’s, Issue 5.  Surreal Fantasy, weird timey wimey things.  “I’m ten or seven when it starts to rain.”

The Garden” – Karen Munroe, in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 29.  Horror. There’s a particular element in the story I just always like, but…yes, I think it’s a good piece regardless.

*”Descent” – Carmen Maria Machado, in Nightmare Magazine, Issue 29.  Horror.  It saves the impact for the last line.  Especially good.

*”The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zaci” – Benjamin Parzybok, in Strange Horizons, 2 Feb 2015.  Horror.  I originally read this and gave it an eight – but it’s the story that’s still stuck in my head at the end of the month, so I bumped it up.

Love Letters to Things Lost and Things Gained” – Sunny Moraine, in Uncanny, Issue 2. SF.  About an artificial arm.

 

 

Honorable mentions:  “Nostalgia” – Bonne Jo Stufflebeam, in InterzoneIssue 256.  Addicted to the past.  It’s an eight, but ach, this issue says it’s from Dec. 2014, so I guess an honorable mention it is.

“Daily Teds” – Ron Collins, in Analog, April 2015.  Although I had issues with the frame story and ending and so can’t give it a proper eight, this is the story that made me laugh out loud.  Hard SF with a sense of humor.

 

Promo Friday: Free DeAnna Books

Okay, last Friday, I was swamped.  This Friday, I’m busy but mostly I just want to lounge about and pretend I’m shagged out after doing taxes.  Or work on a TV pilot, because who would I be if I weren’t biting off more than I can chew?

I didn’t have time to get the edits in on the ultimate section of Alice in Underland: Queen of Stilled Hearts.  To be honest I’m scared of them, not because they’re that terrifying (they aren’t; it’s not that kind of book), but because the idea is so perfect that I’m scared that a) I’ll screw it up, or b) I won’t screw it up and it’ll be perfect and wonderful and that just isn’t me.  Sigh.

So instead let me send you to my free ebooks, if you haven’t read them yet.

Alice's Adventures in Underland, Book 1 Ep 1

 

Alice’s Adventures in Underland: The Queen of Stilled Hearts #1 – Smashwords,KoboApple, and B&NAmazon is not cooperating; you can buy a copy there, but it’s not free.  You can also read it here, on the blog.

Exotics1_EbookCover.6_mini

Exotics #1: The Floating Menagerie – SmashwordsAppleKoboB&N.  Amazon is still not cooperating at this time; that is, you can buy it, but it’s not free.

Zombie Girl Invasion, by De Kenyon

Zombie Girl Invasion – SmashwordsAppleKoboB&N.  Amazon is never going to let me have a book be free ever again, apparently.

And, if you would like to drop me a line by some method or another (Facebook is good) and request one of my other books for review purposes, I will probably see my way to sending you a free copy, because I’m cool like that.  You might also try whining to me about finishing the Alice edits, because my subconscious might listen to you.  It likes you.  Me, I’m like the mother of a teenager as far as it’s concerned.

Page 1 of 265

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén