Month: September 2011 Page 2 of 3

Factory Above, Factory Below

Now at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and OmniLit.

The robots won’t know what hit ’em this weekend only with a free coupon code at Smashwords: KW79G.

Factory Above, Factory Below

by De Kenyon

If Connor had been a robot, he wouldn’t have let the humans live this long.

“If you’re really bad,” the Teachers had said, “the robots will come and take you Below.”  Well, Connor had been really bad this time, and now the robots were coming.  Connor couldn’t wait.

When you were bad, the Teachers told you stories about the Below. The robots had taken over everything Below, and they would kill any living person, animal, or even germs that somehow got Below, in order to keep their environment sterile. How that could be when any fool could see that flushing the toilets into the sewers brought a lot more germs into Below than a person accidentally falling through a hole in the street or something, Connor didn’t know. But that was the Teachers for you, smacking you across the hand with fake wood rulers for asking perfectly logical questions.

“If you’re really bad,” the Teachers had said, “the robots will come for you, and take you Below.”

Well, Connor had been really bad this time.

As far as Connor was concerned what he’d done to be threatened with Below wasn’t either terribly bad or terribly important. He’d tried to burn the school down, was all, and it wasn’t like the place was made out of wood or anything. He was studying the way the extinguishers worked. Not the way they were made, which was something you could look up on a terminal. He wanted to know how they worked. If three rooms out of four in a quad were on fire, would the fourth one’s extinguishers also release their chemicals onto the plastic desks and the industrial carpet and the whiteboards (and the children)? Would the extinguishers be able to tell what type of fire it was and deploy the correct type of extinguisher? How fast would the children be evacuated? Would the Teachers protect just the children, or would they also try to protect other materials—and, if so, what?

Unfortunately, he was stopped before he had many of his questions answered, but he learned that the fire safety systems were not as advanced as they could have been. He also gained the impression that the Teachers were far more highly trained in controlling students than they were at controlling blazes.

All the children were safe—but if there had been a real fire, that is, one that Connor didn’t have under control, they would have been dead in a minute. The Teachers locked down in their classrooms before the children could leave. With the fires still burning inside. As the gas from the fire extinguishers released. In fact, the Teachers did not attempt to rescue the children at all, but quickly checked their desks (for what, he wasn’t sure) after calling, “Face the wall and cover your mouths and noses.”

He had recorded all four sets of teachers in all four rooms, and they had all reacted the same way, even the teacher in the fourth room in the quad, which hadn’t had a fire at all. After the fires were out, and they would have gone out anyway, all the other kids were sent upstairs to the dormitories and classes cancelled. Connor heard a cheer as Miss Mackenthal, his Teacher, herded him down the hall to her office.

“Connor, what are we going to do with you?” Today she was wearing a pink fuzzy sweater and a fake pearl necklace with a big scratch on it that Connor had recorded as being worn by another of the teachers, Miss Rumsey, two years, one month, and six days ago.

“Did you want a serious answer, or did you just want me to shut up?” Connor asked.

Miss Mackenthal sighed. “Both, please.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“You sound more like a robot than the robots do,” Miss Mackenthal closed and locked the door of her office and sat at her desk with her head in her hand and her elbow on her desk, which looked like used, banged-up gray tin but was really new, superhard plastic. Connor’s ears perked up. Had Miss Mackenthal been in contact with the robots? “Connor, I’m sorry. What we’re going to have to do is send you Below.”

Speak Out with Your Geek Out: Calling vs. Hobby

The title for this post comes from Speak Out with Your Geek Out, something started by Monica Valentinelli to celebrate geekdom after a journalist got under her skin by making fun of geeks.

First, my geeks:

I read and write a lot.  I write 1-1.5K an hour; I read over a page a minute (on fiction).  I become lost in other worlds, which may or may not be inside a book.  I daydream to the point where I have a feeling like the one where your eyes are closed and you can feel someone’s finger an inch away from your forehead, feeling the pressure from that other world.  I imagine best while moving:  driving, walking, working out.  I sometimes find out that I am not where I thought I was, because I was elsewhere and my body kept moving.

I like to cook, but even better, I like to analyze cooking.  Mine, yours, anyone’s.  I throw about two cooking parties a year in which we find out how to make things we don’t know how to make.  Here’s the set of Valabar recipe’s from Stephen Brust’s Dzur that we did last year.  We did a Julie/Julia viewing, a Lunar New Year party, and coming up is recipes from my Cooking Cozy, YOUR SOUFFLE MUST DIE. This means I have to learn how to make reliable souffles at the very least, which I am both looking forward to and dreading.  I like going to restaurants where the food is better than anything I can currently make and challenging myself to figure out how it was done.  On the other hand, baking is an enigma to me.  I can do custards (including cheesecake) and few other basic things like quick bread and yeast bread, but after that, I flounder.  The basic problem is that I like to cook more than I do to bake (except cheesecake, which is worth it).

I play MMOs but not FPS; I have astigmatism, and the FPS make me nauseous.  I like rogue characters and big worlds without over-regimented plotlines; COH and LOTRO annoy me.  I’m looking forward to Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I mostly play to hang out with my spouse, but I do miss it when I’m away for too long.

I play sudoku, but it’s too addicting, so I have to cut back from time to time.  It cuts into my reading.

I like to tabletop game:  strangely, D&D is about my least favorite thing to play.  It’s just laborious.  I’m getting more into the GMing side of things; as I get to be a better writer, I’m getting better at that end of things, too.

Second, my not-geeks:

I’m trying to reconcile myself to the things that something inside me wants me to be a geek about, but I’m just not.

  • Gardening.
  • Music, playing of, and attending live concerts of.
  • Computer programming.
  • Crafts.
  • Watching videos, movies, etc., unless they’re related to my actual geeks.

There are probably more things, too, but they’re not coming to mind.  People can almost talk me into these things.  But it’s just not there.  When I do them, I enjoy doing them.  But I don’t go seeking them out.

Third, calling vs. hobby:

At the heart of all this is the question, “At what point is geekdom more valuable than it is ridiculous (and vice versa)?”

Some people would say, “Geekdom is always valuable and never ridiculous.”  But…then you get to the people who live in their parents’ basements after the age of 25 or who have given up a career because they spend too much time watching TV or going to conventions or whatever to be able to invest in their futures.  People who spend a lot of time doing the now and chasing the shiny.

Personally, I think where I break down is here:

If it’s a calling, you follow it.  If it’s a hobby, you screw around with it when you have nothing better to do.

If it’s a hobby that gets in the way of your calling, it’s ridiculous.

If it’s a calling and someone makes fun of you over it, @#$% ’em.  I mean, you might need to be locked up.  But you certainly don’t need to be made fun of.

Writers: Pay yourself first

I’ve heard it over and over again in the financial circles:  pay yourself first.  That is, tuck money away for savings and retirement before you do anything else.  From a financial standpoint, it makes sense:  you can always scrape by (well, pretty much), but if you don’t prioritize your financial future, eventually the it will be upon you like a hoarde of zombies, devouring all the scraps you have left.

However, invest now, and your investments will pay you back and then some.  Unless you invest in the stock market and it crashes right before you want to retire.  That kind of thing.  (So the lesson, when I eventually get to the point, includes investing wisely, okay?  Okay.)

As a writer, I have touched on this again and again, but it hadn’t really clicked with me until this week.  Monday, I knew that I should do my fiction writing first, and do my freelance work second.  I can always do overtime on freelance work, especially if I save the formatting tasks for last.  Formatting is pretty brainless; at least, it’s more brainless than trying to write fiction.

However, I did not; I did my formatting first, because I was feeling a money crunch.  (But when am I not, really?)  Result:  I never got around to doing any fiction.  I have seen the same things happen with my publishing tasks, too:  I can eat up all day formatting a story, picking out a cover, etc., and not get any writing done.

Writing is investment.  It doesn’t pay off now, or this week, or this month, really.  (For writers who work with traditional publishing, it doesn’t even pay off this year, or even next year.)  But if you don’t invest, you’re going to look back and go, “What did I get done today/this week/etc.?  I formatted more ebooks than you can shake a stick at.  I ghostwrote more books that nobody will ever know about.  I spent all my creativity on someone else’s project.  I paid the bills.”

Something to be said for paying the bills.

But something to be said for getting published.  Holding your own books (even if they’re on an ereader) in your own hands.  And, in fact, facing up to your private demons on a daily basis:  writing.

Today I paid myself first.  I’m probably going to have to work late to pay the bills, but it’s made all the difference in my attitude throughout the day (which, to be honest, stank from the first moment I got up this morning until about midway through the chapter of my book).  And then I’ll get up tomorrow and probably screw things up again.

But today.  Today I got it right.

Writing Victories! Zombified and Penumbra

Writing Victories!

Zombified is coming out on October 1.  No preorder capabilities yet, and I’m not sure I can reveal the list of stories yet, but some fun stuff is there.

 

I will provide more information as I get clearance.  “Lanes of the Living Dead” is in there, bless its undead heart.

I also got an acceptance from Penumbra at Musa Publishing – it should be in the November issue.  Wow!  Fast… It’s “Inappropriate Gifts,” a short story about a mother who doesn’t want her daughter to inherit the same gift that she received from her mother, way back when.  No, my mother didn’t give me that stupid box, and in fact tried to take it away, metaphorically speaking, as best she could.  But forces went against her, sad to say.

I sold my 500th copy of Lei’d to Rest at Freeform Games, or about 1300 copies of all my stuff combined (the rest are expansion packs).  I’m working on the expansion pack for this one now, I mean, just about freakin’ forever, because I hated two of the characters with a passion.  And yes, I came up with them.  But I figured out a possible solution.  So I hope that’ll get approved and I’ll be able to finish that, because I really want to work on the Hypothetical Holmsian Steampunk MMG Opus instead.  I have to say, both Steve and Mo at Freeform are EXCELLENT editors and have made my writing better.  All of my writing.  I’m a born rambler, and they’re killer about trimming me back.

On the down side, I am suffering slow indie sales.  Siiiiigh.  The advice to not have a bajillion pen names cuts home here, I suspect.  But the free story (“Miracle, Texas,” a tale of doomed Amazons in the Old West) is finally on its way to B&N via Smashwords, so it’ll be free over there.  And from there, I can flip the story to free on Amazon!  And the world!  MUAHAHAHAHA, etc.

I just got back a galley of Chance Damnation that doesn’t have screwed up fonts.  Note To Self, free fonts and PDFs at CreateSpace don’t mix.  So now Chance is on sale as a POD book!  Whee!  I’ll do a full post and giveaways and things in a bit, after I finish up a few freelance things that are occupying me at the moment.

I need to do two more kids’ stories as De Kenyon, and then I’ll be ready for a collection of that stuff, and Exotics #1 is after that.

It’s going.  Slowly.  But it’s going.

The Scaredy Wizard of Theornin

Now at SmashwordsBarnes & NobleAmazon.com, and OmniLit.

Pick up a free copy this weekend only at Smashwords using coupon code PU29V.

The Scaredy Wizard of Theornin

by De Kenyon

Cormish won’t stop bullying Aster until she steals the wizard’s spell book for him. But does he have to breathe down her neck the whole time? It takes more than five minutes to break into a wizard’s house, especially when it’s raining so hard, no matter how mean Cormish is.

Bullies. Astra knew that she didn’t have to do what Cormish wanted just because he knew that she’d stolen a bunch of stuff from the smokehouse by the river. If he told on her, all her parents would do would be to give her a stern talking to: it wasn’t like they’d be surprised that she’d stolen something. Again.

But from the way Cormish grabbed her arm, so hard that she was sure it would leave bruises, she knew that if she told him off, he’d find something worse to threaten her with, until she did do it. And it wasn’t like she could hide from him, not in Theornin.

So she told him she would get into the wizard’s house somehow and steal his spellbook, but insisted that it would take more than five minutes to figure out how to do it, so could he please stop breathing down her neck and glaring at her already? It was distracting, and if ever there was a time she didn’t need to get caught, it was this time.

So he climbed back up in his wagon and said, “I know where to find you,” slapped the reins against the horses’ backs, and rode off through the mud toward the bridge. The rain fell on his heavy, oiled cloak, making loud pattering sounds.

When the rain fell on Astra, on the other hand, it was perfectly silent, because she didn’t have a cloak at all, just her clothes. She shivered and picked her way through the straw on the wet ground, heading home. Someday, someone should do something about Cormish, but they probably wouldn’t. It was just easier to pretend he didn’t exist, most of the time, even for the adults. That was bullies for you.

Most people were either at home or at the tavern. Astra’s father was probably at the tavern, trying to get work for the coming summer that didn’t involve bending over so much. Less working in the fields and more driving a cart, Ma said, would be the thing for his back, which he had hurt this winter when a horse kicked him. His hip had swelled up all blue, and when the swelling had gone down, he limped when he walked and complained about how much his back hurt him.

After her father had hurt his back, her mother had started asking Astra what she expected she would do with the rest of her life, steal fruit for a living? and other sarcastic questions that made Astra angry but only showed that her mother was afraid of Pa not being able to work. One night her mother had apologized for saying such mean things and explained that Astra was going to have to start working in the fields the next summer, and her mother, too, if her father’s back didn’t get better.

Astra’s Ma was probably at home, taking care of the babies. What would happen to them, if her Ma had to work in the fields, Astra didn’t know. Her mother had burst into tears when she’d asked the one time, and she hadn’t asked again.

Astra slogged through the mud and the rain and cursed herself. “I should have told him he’d have to pay me,” she said. “You want stuff stolen, you have to pay for it. The harder it is to get, the more you have to pay. And this is going to be hard. I got to start bringing money home for my family.”

Maybe she could run away to a big city, like Newmarket, and be a thief. She’d change her name and send money home to her parents.

She stopped in front of the wizard’s house, which, unlike most of the other houses in town, was made out of stone. The rest of the houses were made of dark wood and white-painted plaster and sat on squat wooden poles to keep them out of the mud. But the wizard’s house was made out of stone, and it had been there since before even the wizard was born.

According to everyone, even Astra’s mother, the old wizard used to help people. He would heal the wood-choppers’ wounds, and sell potions that you could use to make servants out of mud, and put out fires, and get rid of beetles when they got into the crops. Astra’s mother had had to carry baskets of bread to his house every week, as payment for putting out a fire and some other stuff. One time he’d stolen a wart right off the bottom of her foot, and paid her with a piece of paper with her name on it. She still had the paper, rolled up tight inside an oiled cloth and tied with a blue ribbon. The old wizard had made her laugh all the time, she said.

The new wizard didn’t do anything to help anybody, though. So he had to pay for his food, just like everyone else.

Cormish, who had wanted to be a wizard since forever but the old wizard told him that he (the wizard) was too old to go around trying to train apprentices, and had waited until the wizard had come in a hired cart with crates and crates of mysterious and breakable things packed in straw, and asked to be the new wizard’s apprentice.

The new wizard had taken one look at him and stepped backward over a crate, tipping it over and causing things inside it to smash. Astra had been there, or so her mother had told her, only she’d been too small to remember.

Cormish had offered the wizard a hand back up, but the wizard had rolled to the side and backed away even further, as though Cormish had swung a fist at him. For some reason, Cormish (who was a bully) had terrified the wizard, and he hid every time Cormish had tried to ask him since then. They weren’t supposed to, but all the kids called him “the scaredy wizard” when he wasn’t around.

And now Cormish wanted Wizard Jorphen’s spell book.

The Scaredy Wizard of Theornin

Now at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and OmniLit.

Pick up a free copy this weekend only at Smashwords using coupon code PU29V.

The Scaredy Wizard of Theornin

by De Kenyon

Cormish won’t stop bullying Aster until she steals the wizard’s spell book for him. But does he have to breathe down her neck the whole time? It takes more than five minutes to break into a wizard’s house, especially when it’s raining so hard, no matter how mean Cormish is.

Bullies. Astra knew that she didn’t have to do what Cormish wanted just because he knew that she’d stolen a bunch of stuff from the smokehouse by the river. If he told on her, all her parents would do would be to give her a stern talking to: it wasn’t like they’d be surprised that she’d stolen something. Again.

But from the way Cormish grabbed her arm, so hard that she was sure it would leave bruises, she knew that if she told him off, he’d find something worse to threaten her with, until she did do it. And it wasn’t like she could hide from him, not in Theornin.

So she told him she would get into the wizard’s house somehow and steal his spellbook, but insisted that it would take more than five minutes to figure out how to do it, so could he please stop breathing down her neck and glaring at her already? It was distracting, and if ever there was a time she didn’t need to get caught, it was this time.

So he climbed back up in his wagon and said, “I know where to find you,” slapped the reins against the horses’ backs, and rode off through the mud toward the bridge. The rain fell on his heavy, oiled cloak, making loud pattering sounds.

When the rain fell on Astra, on the other hand, it was perfectly silent, because she didn’t have a cloak at all, just her clothes. She shivered and picked her way through the straw on the wet ground, heading home. Someday, someone should do something about Cormish, but they probably wouldn’t. It was just easier to pretend he didn’t exist, most of the time, even for the adults. That was bullies for you.

Most people were either at home or at the tavern. Astra’s father was probably at the tavern, trying to get work for the coming summer that didn’t involve bending over so much. Less working in the fields and more driving a cart, Ma said, would be the thing for his back, which he had hurt this winter when a horse kicked him. His hip had swelled up all blue, and when the swelling had gone down, he limped when he walked and complained about how much his back hurt him.

After her father had hurt his back, her mother had started asking Astra what she expected she would do with the rest of her life, steal fruit for a living? and other sarcastic questions that made Astra angry but only showed that her mother was afraid of Pa not being able to work. One night her mother had apologized for saying such mean things and explained that Astra was going to have to start working in the fields the next summer, and her mother, too, if her father’s back didn’t get better.

Astra’s Ma was probably at home, taking care of the babies. What would happen to them, if her Ma had to work in the fields, Astra didn’t know. Her mother had burst into tears when she’d asked the one time, and she hadn’t asked again.

Astra slogged through the mud and the rain and cursed herself. “I should have told him he’d have to pay me,” she said. “You want stuff stolen, you have to pay for it. The harder it is to get, the more you have to pay. And this is going to be hard. I got to start bringing money home for my family.”

Maybe she could run away to a big city, like Newmarket, and be a thief. She’d change her name and send money home to her parents.

She stopped in front of the wizard’s house, which, unlike most of the other houses in town, was made out of stone. The rest of the houses were made of dark wood and white-painted plaster and sat on squat wooden poles to keep them out of the mud. But the wizard’s house was made out of stone, and it had been there since before even the wizard was born.

According to everyone, even Astra’s mother, the old wizard used to help people. He would heal the wood-choppers’ wounds, and sell potions that you could use to make servants out of mud, and put out fires, and get rid of beetles when they got into the crops. Astra’s mother had had to carry baskets of bread to his house every week, as payment for putting out a fire and some other stuff. One time he’d stolen a wart right off the bottom of her foot, and paid her with a piece of paper with her name on it. She still had the paper, rolled up tight inside an oiled cloth and tied with a blue ribbon. The old wizard had made her laugh all the time, she said.

The new wizard didn’t do anything to help anybody, though. So he had to pay for his food, just like everyone else.

Cormish, who had wanted to be a wizard since forever but the old wizard told him that he (the wizard) was too old to go around trying to train apprentices, and had waited until the wizard had come in a hired cart with crates and crates of mysterious and breakable things packed in straw, and asked to be the new wizard’s apprentice.

The new wizard had taken one look at him and stepped backward over a crate, tipping it over and causing things inside it to smash. Astra had been there, or so her mother had told her, only she’d been too small to remember.

Cormish had offered the wizard a hand back up, but the wizard had rolled to the side and backed away even further, as though Cormish had swung a fist at him. For some reason, Cormish (who was a bully) had terrified the wizard, and he hid every time Cormish had tried to ask him since then. They weren’t supposed to, but all the kids called him “the scaredy wizard” when he wasn’t around.

And now Cormish wanted Wizard Jorphen’s spell book.

 

Finding the Beginning of Your Story

I picked this idea up at a Pikes Peak Writers Write Brain, and now I can’t remember who gave the presentation or the book that inspired them.  Dur.

A common problem I see with beginning writers is that they don’t know when to begin a story–that is, they’ll go on for pages and pages, only reaching the actual beginning of the story after a lot of other stuff has happened.  Whole chapters.

Some people have a feel for it.  I didn’t.  Instead of studying stories to deduce any commonalities, I instead listened to writing advice:  start with an opening stasis.

Here’s the pattern I learned:

  • Opening stasis.
  • Inciting incident.
  • Crisis/Reversal.
  • Climax.
  • Closing stasis.

This is a logical pattern for someone reading a book.  This is not helpful for someone writing a book.

Another piece of advice that did me no good whatsoever:

  • Start in the middle (in media res).

Because…where?  Where in the middle?  Wait, start in the middle of the opening stasis?  Where does the opening stasis begin!?!

Again, these things are helpful if you’re trying to analyze choices a writer has already made.  However, they really do you no good when you’re trying to make your own choices.

Like I said, I picked this up from elsewhere, but for some reason, I haven’t been able to explain it very well until recently (yesterday).  So here’s my rule of thumb:

  • Start your story at the exact moment when, no matter what your main character does, nothing will ever be the same.

That might sound restrictive, but you can disguise it by making it look like an opening stasis.  In fact, most (good) stories that start out with what appears to be an opening stasis are really starting with the straw before the straw that broke the camel’s back…only there was no avoiding that next straw, see?

  • Star Wars:  Starts when Vader attacks a diplomatic ship, causing Leia to jettison the droids.  Oh, Luke might have managed not to pick up the droids or take them to Ben Kenobi, but doing so would have meant breaking character.  Lucas tantalizes us with the possibility that Luke might not get taken up with the adventure (by offering up the other droid for sale first, for example), but he’s just teasing, and we know it.
  • Pride & Prejudice:  Starts when the best of all possible bachelors moves into town at the exact moment when Mrs. Bennet is determined to get her old, less-favored daughters married and out of the way, so she can stop worried about them being tossed out in the street when her husband dies.  If they won’t marry Bingley…they’re going to marry somebody.  She doesn’t care, really.
  • Sandman:  Starts when the museum curator brings the magus Burgess the book he needs to trap Death…but captures Dream instead.
  • Nine Princes in Amber:  Starts with the first moment Corwin throws off the drugs enough to wonder where and who he is.  Doesn’t take much…but the moral of the story is “Don’t @#$% with Corwin,” so that’s all right.
  • The Hobbit: Starts with Gandalf arriving…to put a mark on Bilbo’s door as a code for the dwarves.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Starts with a very bored little girl who’s tired of listening to her sister read improving morals, who happens to see a rabbit with a waistcoat.
  • The Neverending Story:  Starts with BBB hiding in a bookshop from bullies…and deciding to steal a particularly interesting book.
  • The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn):  Starts with the day that the old king decides to pull himself together one last time…but is really just a setup to get Simon to hide out with Morgenes to avoid any real work.  Kings?  Not nearly as important as a three-frog story.
  • The Gunslinger:  Starts with Roland following the Man in Black.  Nothing changes; things just go on and on until he meets Jake.  Given the ending, an appropriate deviation from the pattern.  I wonder whether King had any idea of what the ending would be, when he started that first book.  The copy I have is the revised one; I’m pretty sure he knew by that point.
  • One of my favorite beginnings is in  Five Hundred Years After, by Stephen Brust.  On a surface level, a servant gives a message to the Emperor that a certain noble won’t be attending the meeting to determine who’s going to pay the Imperial tax, because she’s indisposed.  Arguably, it’s finally knowing that he’s broke that drives the Emperor to do what he does through the book…but more subtly, the particular noble is one being blackmailed by the bad guy, and this is the first outward sign of the plot he’s putting into place.

An opening stasis isn’t a stasis at all:  it’s looks like a stasis, but really it’s the subtle shift in snow that starts an avalanche.  And starting in media res?  Sure, you could start with a bunch of explosions, but your audience will be confused until we get to the actual beginning.  Explosions don’t move us:  a story that supports those explosions with plot moves us.

Prologues:

Mostly, the prologues of beginning writers are no good.  Boring, usually involving characters for whom we have no empathy, and something that would probably go down better as a paragraph of backstory in Chapter 3.

Yet I’ve read some good prologues.  I would tend to say that the ones I’ve liked don’t give “history,” they give the very first twinkling that the story will occur–the first snowflakes falling that will cause that avalanche.  The incidents in the prologue stand out as being not one of any number of incidents that might have contributed to the story (like a memory of a character’s father, who inspired her to become a firefighter) but is the incident, without which the story could never have occurred (the memory of a character’s father kissing her goodbye before he dies in a terrible blaze to save a bunch of kids, saying before he leaves, “I’m sorry I have to go, but I hope you’re proud of me, baby” “No, papa, I want you to stay at my birthday party!”  “I can’t, baby.  I need to save lives”).  And then, of course, you have to start the story all over again, showing the moment when the character’s life changes forever, in the present.

But the ones where the bad guy explains his evil plot to take over the world?  Borrrring.  The ones where the evil plot first touches the main character, that is, the real opening of the story, are usually much better.  Now, a prologue where the bad guy’s evil plot first starts to go horribly, horribly wrong, that might be fun.

Backstory:

I think this also helps explain why beginning writers get so tied up in backstory, too, even though it drives readers nuts.  You hear the “rule” to start with something exciting, but that something exciting may not be the beginning of the story.  And once you’ve started backtracking, you throw in all kinds of back material that seems important, but is really not important to that moment when nothing could ever be the same.  Do we need to know about firefighter girl’s mother?  Not really.  Her grandparents?  Her hometown?  Her friends at the party?  No.  Those are not the things which changed her life forever.  They can show up, but only if they don’t slow us down.  We’ll pick up on that kind of stuff as we go along.

Starting with an explosion or some other interesting, exciting flashbangwhizgee, then shifting to backstory, immediately tells the reader that the writer doesn’t know where the beginning of the story is.  Sorry.

Your story’s genre will lend itself to some traditions (like serial-killer books starting with a prologue involving the death of a victim).  If you choose to follow those traditions, make sure that they identify the real beginning of your book.  Why this victim?  What sets this murder apart, for the investigators (as in Darkly Dreaming Dexter–the killer isn’t just your typical serial killer, but kills in a way that Dex has never seen before and can’t even imagine how it’s done [although I can’t remember how exactly the book starts now, dammit]).

If you must start with explosions, have those explosions conceal (but not too cleverly) the beginning seeds of inevitable change.

Why this time, and not some other?

Inspiration, My Ass

People who know me have heard this before, in one form or another:  being a hard worker is better than being talented.

But today, I’d like to focus on a slightly different aspect:  inspiration.  I was having a conversation on Twitter with someone who insisted that he was stuck replanning his next project and couldn’t get started writing a short story or anything during his replanning process because there weren’t any other stories that wanted to write themselves.

Granted, last year I was singing the same tune, if a somewhat different verse:  I was asking people how to come up with ideas, because the story-a-week thing was leaving me kind of drained (after what, three months or something).  The answer was one that I already knew but didn’t want to hear:  take a couple-three ideas, smoosh them together, and write like the fifth or twentieth idea that came out of them (the first few ones usually just being the easy answers rather than the really fun ones).

What I really wanted to know was how to come up with ideas that inspired me on a weekly basis.

Stories that, in fact, wanted to write themselves.

Stories that would give me that “just fallen in love” feeling, all over again, on a weekly basis.

I still love those stories, but I don’ t wait around for them.  I have long since used up my secret, subconscious store of “ideas that I will write as stories someday.”  Years of secret inspiration:  gone.  I’ve even dug through old files to look at old ideas…they’re usually crap, which is why I didn’t remember them.  So I just let it go and threw myself on the mercy of my muse.

Wait, my muse?

The muse goes deeper than you think.  And, in fact, the muse likes nothing better than a deadline, a panic, and a sense of not having a clue what you’re going to do next.  As in, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” not, “Sitting around in coffeeshops with a latte for weeks on end is the mother of invention.”

Your muse is in your butt.  As in when it’s in the chair while your fingers are typing.

The thing that weeds out writers I have known is attitude, not talent.  Hard work will make you more inspired.  It’s true.

So here’s how I spark my muse when my conscious brain doesn’t have any ideas, sixty-some stories later:

1) Determine what kind of story I want to write–genre, age, audience.  Will it be funny, serious, scary, or all three?  Will there be romance?  Will there be interestingly foolish people with good intentions?  (On that last bit, almost certainly yes.)  And length.  That is, I set the rules for the story type.

2) Go for a walk, take a shower, do some housework, cruise the Internet (BoingBoing is excellent for this) and collect two or three ideas that appeal at the moment, then run them through the story machines in my head until I’ve hit that fifth or tenth or hundredth idea that actually grabs me and makes me grab a pen.  I’m brainstorming the hook of the story, if you will, like “Amazons in the Old West” or something.

3) Come up with a four-step outline that gives a beginning, a middle, an end, and a twist in there somewhere.

4) Make sure I know the core point of the story, like “What makes revenge worthwhile?” and a conflict, like “Love versus membership in a tribe.”

5) Write.*

(*Steps 1-4 are optional and should be adjusted to fit your personal writing process.  Any adjustment that prevents Step 5 is bullshit.)

I can get an idea, write it up, edit it, and publish it on the same day, if I take all day.  Sometimes I take longer, because I feel more comfortable not running to the last minute before a deadline.  I couldn’t do it a year ago…because I thought I couldn’t.  I didn’t break down the major bullshit preconceptions in my writing process all at one time, but bit by bit, week by week.

I can write longhand.  I can type.  I can write in a noisy room.  I can write all alone.  I can write to a full outline.  I can write off the seat of my pants.  I can write fast.  I can write slow.  I can write in poetry (although I tend not to).  I can write literature.  I can hack out pulp.  I can write in multiple genres.  I can write for multiple age groups.

The important thing is:  you can, too.

Your muse is you.

Your muse isn’t something that happens to you.  Inspiration doesn’t come from outside you; it comes from your spirit.  Your writing process isn’t a magical spell that occurs all the better for your squeezing your eyes shut, sticking your fingers in your ears, and saying “la la la.”

Don’t be a prima donna.  Don’t wait for inspiration (how can you wait for yourself?  Forever, apparently).  Don’t make excuses.  Don’t let your writing process be a magical ritual–not that there’s anything wrong with treating yourself with a new pen, notebook, or fancy font; just don’t let it the obsessive-compulsive part of your brain latch onto it.  It’s your work, your talent.  It’s your you.  It’s a business, and you have to show up.

Get your butt in the chair, fingers on keyboard.  And if that doesn’t work, set a deadline.  It’s inspiring.

Creating a Writer’s “Identity” without Being a Fake

One of the cool things about pen names is that, in creating a pen name, you’ve created an “identity,” in the marketing sense.

For example, I created “De Kenyon” to write pulp stories for kids.  That’s it.  If you’re creating a pen name, you’re identifying your market; if you’re identifying your market, you’re creating an “identity.”

It’s easier for me to do the whole “identity” thing with pen names rather than with my own.  I’m me, after all, and there’s a lot more me than will fit into an “identity.”  As with all actual writers.

But, after a little more than a year of writing short stories (nearly) every week, I’m starting to get a sense of what makes up a “DeAnna Knippling” story.  I feel pretty comfortable about starting to get an “identity,” actually.  I thought it would bother me, that I would just feel fake.

Well, no.  It’s not a question of fake or real, because this IS fiction.  It’s all fake, and it’s all as real and as personal as I can make it, all at the same time.  It’s fabricated.  The “identity” that I have as a writer comes not from some kind of fabricated story about myself, though.  It comes from seeing what I write and feel comfortable publishing under the “DeAnna Knippling” name.  If it has to go under a different pen name, then it’s not part of my “identity.”

As I start figuring out what “DeAnna Knippling” likes to write, I also deduce the facts of my life that are relevant to that.  From those facts come my identity as a writer.

“What would a person who reads story X like to know about?”

That’s where my marketing identify comes from.  From me, but also from my readers.  True things that fit the same pattern as what I write.  At least, that’s how I’m currently understanding it.

So what does “DeAnna Knippling” write?

She writes Weird Westerns in which strong-willed characters miss the point entirely.  They’re sexist, racist, and just about as bigoted as you can get–all while having no idea that they’re that way.  Part of her history is being surrounded by people with the same kinds of prejudices.  They could get hard to be around–but they were all still people.  Being bigots didn’t make them inhuman monsters; we’re all hypocrites and bigots of some type.  It’s biology.

She writes SF stories in which she takes what-ifs usually related to psychology and pushes them out as far as she can reasonably take them, then populates her big-idea stories with people she almost knows, because that’s what it takes to make a far-out idea connect with her.  When she started work at Schriever AFB, one of the things that surprised her was how goofy engineers are, one second talking the sky, the next gabbling on about reality TV shows, because both seem equally fantastic.

She’s still not sure why she writes contemporary fantasy, but it seems like it’s because she just wants to play around with the border between psychology and myth.  She minored in psychology, after all.

She writes horror stories for reasons other than the ones that most people write horror stories, she thinks.  She doesn’t think of horror stories as fun, per se, although she has definitely read some that were fun.  When she was in college, when she was restless, she went on long walks out to the river, in the dark.  This was not the smartest thing; lots of people had been assaulted in the woods near the river, and it was dark as sin.  But when she needed to find out what she was thinking about and couldn’t find it within the confines of her own head, she went there to look for it, and it was usually there.  A dark kind of magic is what she’s looking for, when she writes horror stories now.

–These things aren’t lies or fakery, not at all.  But they don’t tell the whole story, either.  But they explain why I write what I do, and I think that’s what a writer’s “identity” is for.

Miracle, Texas

Now at SmashwordsOmniLit, Barnes & Noble, Feedbooks, and Amazon.com.

You can’t tie down an Amazon…there’s no coupon on this one; it’s my first permanently FREE story.  (Note:  It may take some sites longer than others to go free.)

This was first published as in audio at Nil Desperandum.

Miracle, Texas

by DeAnna Knippling

The man rode into Amazon Valley the same way they all did, blindfolded, hooded, and with his hands tied behind his back. Men were trouble, and Justine liked them that way. A Weird West tale.

If he’d meant to leave his wife for her, he shouldn’t have shot her horse.

Justine waved to the banditos and hefted her saddlebags. She’d sold the banditos her saddle and tack in payment for the ride from El Paso to Miracle, Texas. They’d heard of Marguerite’s Amazons and therefore weren’t prepared to risk doing her bodily harm, but they weren’t going to give her a ride for free. She walked the last mile and a half, one foot in front of the other. Her boots hurt her feet; she wasn’t used to walking.

Miracle was a shitty little border town made out of unpainted gray pine boards shrinking in the dry, hot air until light and dust sparkled through the cracks. Justine wasn’t sure whether she liked the place or not. She couldn’t live there, that was sure.

Justine dropped her saddlebags in front of the first tavern she passed. The sign read “The hatte  d G ass” and showed a busted shot glass tipped on its side. She waited.

The owner came out, a fat man with big arms. He could have broken her in half, if he could have caught her. She wiggled her feet inside her boots, getting her balance.

“What do you want?” he asked. Didn’t pay to be too rude, out in the desert. Even to somebody like Justine.

“I want a room.”

“How long?”

“Few days, probably. I’m here to get a horse.”

He nodded toward her saddlebags. “Died in the desert.”

“Shot out from under me.”

The owner’s eyebrows went up. “I thought I heard the Amazons got burnt out.” He looked to the right. Justine followed his sightline and spotted the jail across the street and behind her. “You’re not here to make trouble, are you?”

“Depends on whether I get my horse.”

“How you going to pay?”

Justine opened her hand. She already had a gold coin in her palm. The coin had a woman’s head on one side and was blank on the other. The man inhaled quickly.

“Go on, take it,” Justine said. “It’s not like it means anything anymore. It’s just a piece of shiny metal now. Or don’t you want it?”

She tossed it at the man. He caught it, didn’t bother to check it.

“Follow me,” he said.

 

She washed her face and untied her hair so the silver coins jingled free. Then she cleaned her guns, oiled them, and brushed the dirt and dust out of her holsters.

She ordered a whiskey at the bar, drank it, crossed herself, and walked across the street to the jailhouse.

She stopped outside the door and howled: “Giles Carsten! Get your mangy, murdering, cheatin’ ass out here, you lying son of a bitch!” She was prepared to continue on in such a fashion for quite some time, but Giles came out right away.

Her heart leapt in her chest like a hiccup. Giles wasn’t pretty. He had a big mouth and a beaky nose, and his jaw stuck out like the front of a train. He put his hands on the railing so Justine could see his wedding band shine dull orange in the sunset.

He said, “What seems to be the problem, miss?”

“You owe me a horse,” Justine said.

“I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

Justine spat on the ground. “You’re lucky all I want from you is a horse.”

“You’re a whore,” Giles said. “I don’t have anything to do with whores.”

It was like they were playing a game or acting out a play. Certain moves had to be made.

Justine pulled out a gun, just one. “You’ll give me a horse—and tack—or you’ll shoot me down in the street.” She held the butt of the gun on her shoulder, pointed up in the air.

“How about I put you in jail instead?”

“Give me a horse!” Justine screamed. It echoed back at her. Justine shook her head; her coins clinked together. “I’m going to eat and go to bed. And at dawn I’m going to find your horse and take it and ride out of this shithole.” Justine put her gun back in her holster and walked back to the hotel, where the owner was standing in the doorway.

“You getting out of my way?” she said. He stepped aside almost as though he hadn’t heard her.

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