Sunday, April 29, 2007

Chapter 7 is finished.

So far so good on my new resolution. 1,218 words were written tonight, and I revised 650 words from yesterday besides. This actually finishes off chapter 7 and moves me right on into chapter 8, so I'm really pleased about that. There were a couple of intense action scenes in this chapter, and I think that they came out really well. There are a couple of really spectacular such scenes in THE GUARDIAN (if I do say so myself), and I think these come out about on par with those.

Not much else to report yet. I have hit the end of my specific-preplanning again, so I'll have to figure out the specifics of what happens next before I can do much in-depth writing. I've got a broad plan, and I'm a lot more comfortable with my characters and overall story arc now, so that should happen more easily than in the past with this book. I'm hoping to nail down enough tomorrow that I can get at least another scene or two written then as well. I'm tantalizingly close to 20,000 words, and if I can get the scenes planned properly I hope to pass that mark tomorrow.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
19,391 / 95,000 (20.4%)

Even more hook tightening

Here's, the current version, even further tightened based on some excellent suggestions from Karen Mahoney:

Ever since his wife was murdered, Darrell Williams has cared only about keeping his four-year old daughter safe, but doing so is becoming increasingly difficult even in his isolated riverside home. Nine years have passed since the undead grey men ended civilization, and while most of the scattered remaining humans have settled into a routine of bare survival, the order of Darrell’s life never quite recovered. When everyone else in the town near his home is killed in an attack by the grey men, Darrell and his daughter flee to Alden Ridge, where they are welcomed because he was once a doctor.

Together with Elaine Ward and the other inhabitants of an old factory, Darrell hopes he can finally create a good life for his daughter. But the grey men in the wilderness around Alden Ridge are becoming more violent, and it is clear that the town will soon fall. The situation deteriorates even further when two men claiming to be military scouts arrive in town—they say theirs is a mission of aid, but Darrell believes they were involved in his wife’s murder. Darrell and Elaine’s only hope of saving Alden Ridge is to discover the secrets behind the rise of the grey men and the fall of the modern world.

Thoughts? It's about 30 words shorter than the last version, and definitely flows more quickly in a few key places. Rachel, does this help with the issues you had with the last paragraph? Thanks to everyone who has been kind enough to offer suggestions and criticism!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fear Itself

So, I confess, I haven't written anything since last Saturday. I have done some hook work, as you know, and a lot of general preplanning (in a discussion with my wife, we came up with some really excellent new ideas for the coming part of the book). I could say that I just wasn't ready to write yet . . . but that really wouldn't be true. I've been afraid.

I didn't fully realize it until today, but getting rejected so much has really made me afraid of writing. Afraid of writing something new and just getting a bunch of rejections again, anyway. It's helpful to realize that this is largely what has been holding me back over the last couple of months, but it's something that I'll have to deal with as best I can over the course of writing this novel.

Rejection is just a fact of writing, and since I never expected it to have this sort of effect on me, it took me a long time to realize that it had. I guess this happens to everyone in such a situation, but I've never had such a lack of confidence in something that was really important to me before. Oh, sure, I've had tons of situations where I've had low or no confidence--I was a pretty decent tennis player back in high school, but I always completely froze up in tryouts and so never made the school team, even though I played top spots in the (admittedly lesser-ranked, but still good) city teams.

I've just never had a problem with freezing up when it came to writing or programming, or anything else purely intellectual or academic. Now that I know what the problem is, hopefully it will be easier to control. I wasn't sure exactly what the problem was until now, and that made it hard to do anything about it. For the rest of this book I'm going to try to keep to a better writing schedule so that a) I actually get some writing done, and b) I don't spend every waking moment fretting about why I'm not writing. So far with ALDEN RIDGE, I've been failing both pretty routinely, though I have had some nice bursts of real productivity.

At the pace that I've maintained over the last two months, it would take me a full year just to write the first draft of ALDEN RIDGE. That's reasonable, in itself, except that would mean I would only be writing for a day or two each week. I'm not okay with that, except when there's a really good reason for it.

So, here's hoping that I'll make much better progress coming up. Tonight I actually did really well and wrote a full 1,667 words. It looks like less if you compare to the graph of last time, but that's because I cut some 350 words from last session. I don't have a specific wordcount goal for the near future, but in general I want to keep to a pace that will have my first draft done in six months or less--at this point, that really should be more than enough time if I'm able to overcome my fears. I guess we'll see how well that goes.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
18,173 / 95,000 (19.1%)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Yet Another New Hook

After considering the comments of the judge from the Fangs, Fur, & Fey contest, I've come up with a completely new version of my ALDEN RIDGE hook. I think this shows more of Darrell's character, and shows more of the overarching conflicts in the story, and is less like a synopsis than before. Here it is:

Ever since his wife was murdered two years before, Darrell Williams has cared only about keeping his four-year old daughter safe, but doing so is becoming increasingly difficult even in his isolated riverside home. Nine years have passed since the undead grey men first appeared and ended civilization, and while most of the scattered remaining humans have settled into a routine of bare survival in small towns, the order of Darrell’s life never quite recovered. When everyone else in the town near his home is killed in an unexpectedly coordinated attack by the grey men, he and his daughter flee to Alden Ridge, where they are welcomed because Darrell was once a doctor.

Together with Elaine Ward and the other few inhabitants of an old factory on the outskirts of town, Darrell hopes he can finally create a good life for his daughter. But the grey men in the wilderness around Alden Ridge are becoming more aggressive and violent, and it is clear that the town will soon fall. Darrell and Elaine do their best to try to hold the people together, but the situation deteriorates even further when two men claiming to be military scouts arrive in town—they say theirs is a mission of aid, but Darrell believes they were involved in his wife’s murder. Darrell and Elaine’s only hope of saving Alden Ridge is to somehow discover the secrets behind the rise of the grey men and the fall of the modern world.

Thoughts? Suggestions? These are the questions that I'm most conscious of:

1) Is it still too much like a synopsis?
2) Do you get enough of a sense of Darrell's character?
3) Does Darrell seem more heroic in this version?
4) Does it bug you that I reveal next to nothing about Elaine?
5) Does the last line need a better transition from the one before it?
6) Is there any place where it just seems like I didn't give enough info?
7) Does any part of it (first paragraph in particular) still seem too much like lead-up?
8) Do you get enough sense of the setting?
9) Anything else that rubs you the wrong way?
10) Finally: Does this seem like a genuine improvement over my old hook, or is it just different?

All comments are much appreciated.

UPDATE #1: This has been slightly revised after some awesome comments at FFF.
UPDATE #2: This has been revised again for clarity in a few places based on some more great comments at FFF, and the last paragraph has also been tightened a bit in response to excellent feedback from Rachel Olivier.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

10 Thoughts on hook writing

After reading a large selection of the hooks over at the Fangs, Fur, & Fey contest, and getting feedback on my own hook, I've started to recognize what makes a hook fade into the background. Not making my own hooks do so is still a huge challenge, but at any rate I'm now better able to judge the hooks for books I don't have any other knowledge on. Hopefully that will have some value to my own hook-writing, but that remains to be seen.

Here are the general things that I have found that kill my interest in a hook:

1. Everything is too generic. The story and characters just seem to be a composite of existing published books in the genre, with nothing new.

2. No emotional connection with the characters. Or worse, the reader quickly comes to hate the characters. We have to see these characters as actual people, and they have to be in situations that one way or another make us identify with them in some way. They can't be too godlike, or nothing but flaws.

3. The plot/setting/premise seems flawed or unrealistic. Generally speaking, when someone reads your hook, what you tell them is all they know. So when key information is omitted, or your description is such that it seems like there is a simple and obvious solution (even though the obvious solution might well be disqualified in the book itself), that seems like a logic error to the reader, and that's pretty fatal.

4. Overly wordy. Too many hooks just aren't economical with word choice, and so the rhythm and clarity of the writing both take a huge hit. Even writers who are excellent in longer form will freeze up and have all sorts of awkward wording in this ultra-short format.

5. Voice and style get lost. In too many hooks, perhaps even including my own, the writer is so focused on efficiently conveying information that their own voice and style get lost. It can make for a rather boring or monotonous read if care is not taken.

6. The presentation is too complex. Complex ideas are great in books, and one of the beautiful things about books is that they are long enough to express these ideas while still telling an engaging story. Unfortunately, hooks are far too short to do this, and from a standpoint of sales it seems like the engaging story part wins out. Hinting is complexity is good, and striking new ideas are great, but trying to explain too many plot twists or too much of your complex worldbuilding can really bog down a hook in a bad way. Remember: you're obviously going to have to leave some parts of your book out of your hook--otherwise there wouldn't be much need for a book-length version, would there?

7. The material is too simple. There were a few hooks posted that were just way too short. They were on the order to 50-100 words, and just did a little bit of description of the world and the overarching problem. Some didn't even mention any specific characters, which is obviously a problem. Even though you can't (and shouldn't) outline every part of your story in your hook, there needs to be enough there to properly hint at all the great things that await those who read the entire thing.

8. Misspellings. This one seems pretty inexcusable to me. This is a short enough piece of text that it should be highly polished. If you've got one or two misspellings in your hook, it's a red flag that your ms might be littered with them. It seems like a lot of people don't know the difference between "lose" and "loose," which is really a pet peeve of mine. Almost as much as "their" and "there" and "they're," and "lead" versus "led."

9. Rhetorical Questions? Have you ever had your eyebrows plucked by a superhero waitress? It's really irritating when a question is asked that has an obviously negative answer. Or, if the answer is obviously positive, it still begs a negative answer from the irritated reader (Have you ever wished you were fabulously rich?). Maybe this doesn't bug some people, but I know that agent Nathan Bransford has commented on this several times before.

10. Self Praise. This just doesn't work. Discussing how brilliant you think your book is, or all the wonderful lessons that it has to teach humanity, just doesn't come across. You can't claim that your own book is smart or funny and have a reader believe you--you have to show them. Really, this is back to that "show, don't tell" mantra.

So, that's my ten things (in no particular order). Now, which ones have I fallen prey to? In THE GUARDIAN's hook I had a problem with #1, having things sound too generic. In ALDEN RIDGE's current hook, I'm perhaps a little bit too distant from the characters, thus indicating #2. In the past, I've had a lot of trouble with #4, being overly wordy, but I hope I'm past that now. Item #6 (too complex) has been something that I've intentionally been avoiding, but that often makes me fall prey to #7 (too simple). It's a fine line, and I have yet to find the perfect balance there. At least I don't do any of the others (that I know of).

Hook writing is a tricky business, and in many ways requires different skills than actually writing a good book does. But it's one of those necessary evils, so we all have to get really good at it. That's why I started so early with my hook for ALDEN RIDGE--it gives me months and months to rethink it and revise. There's nothing worse than spending a year or more to write your book, then a month or two to polish it and make revisions based on beta reader feedback, and then sending out queries with a crappy hook that you wrote in a few hours or days. That's what I did with THE GUARDIAN, and that was a mistake. Please don't do the same!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What does "the public" know in your story?

In certain kinds of (predominantly fantasy) stories, you have a situation where there is an overarching world structure that most people are familiar with, and then there is a sub-structure that some people are aware of. But how many people, and to what degree? In the case of HARRY POTTER, for instance, the muggles are all completely unaware of the magical side of our contemporary world. In the case of STAR WARS, everyone isn't aware of the Force and the Jedi, but most people are. In the case of THE DARK IS RISING, almost nobody knows of the Old Ones--barely more than a thousand people in the whole history of the world, I believe.

So, when setting up a fantastical world of your own, how do you handle it? From a storytelling standpoint, there are benefits and drawbacks to all of the above approaches. It ultimately depends on what kind of story you want to tell. In THE GUARDIAN I chose to have it so that everyone is aware of magic in general, and they consider it an everyday thing--but at the same time their understanding of magic is deeply flawed, and there is a whole other side to the Otherworld that most people aren't even aware of.

I used this setup for a number of thematic reasons, but it has the drawback of raising a lot of questions regarding why people don't figure it out. That's something that is more addressed in my second book, but is hinted at in THE GUARDIAN--basically it is noted that certain aspects of the Otherworld can be perceived in multiple ways, and a central controlling body (the Ministry of Colonization) guides people's perceptions to the conclusion that is less alarming--as if most people need the help.

In ALDEN RIDGE, I also have secrets that only a few people know, but people's general understanding of what is happening in their post-apocalyptic world is not that far off. They may not know why things are the way they are, and they certainly don't know about some of the darkest things that lurk in their world, but in general their reality isn't far off. This is more the STAR WARS level of public knowledge, whereas THE GUARDIAN is something more like the HARRY POTTER level of public knowledge (though the similarities between these works mostly end there).

A story where the public generally knows about the dark/fantastical things is easier to write in some ways, because it makes your character freer to act and seek help, but it also makes it harder to write in other ways, because you have to do worldbuilding twice--once for people's public perceptions (all that is "general" knowledge), and once for the special things that the protagonist learns. I think that's pretty universal in most stories--whatever the scale, the protagonist is going to learn some things that few other people know. It's really just a question of degree: how much of what is mystical and dark is generally unknown, and how much is known?

And I think that boils down to two questions that are often hard to answer until you are a ways into writing or planning your story: 1) Does either approach trap you into any "rules" that contradict other plot elements you want to include, or otherwise force you down any paths you want to go down; 2) Does either approach offer you a more powerful/exciting/emotional angle that you just really want to have?

To me, secrets are an important aspect of worldbuilding in my own writing, because that's just the sort of stories that I tell. I like the element of mystery, though it's certainly not the only way to tell a story with large-scale fantastical elements. It's all about finding your own style, and making sure that your worldbuilding supports the kind of stories that you most want to tell.

Monday, April 23, 2007

My Hook is Posted

In the Fangs, Fur, & Fey contest, my hook was #129. I didn't make it to the pages round, but the judge did have some good comments:
Sounds like a nice creepy post-apoc tale, and the writing seems smooth. I
do indeed want to know why the gray men rose and the modern world fell.
Unfortunately this is more a recitation of plot events (they go downriver, they
find other survivors, there's an expedition that ends in disaster, etc.) than a
sense of what the story is actually about. It feels like you're standing too
close to the forest so all you can point out are trees-- you need to stand back
and give us a better sense of the shape of the forest itself, the overarching
scope, the throughline, of the story. If Darrell and Elaine need to save Alden
Ridge from Stantonsburg's fate (which was what, exactly? 'overrun' vague.
Details would be good here), and they need to discover the secrets behind why
their world is the way it is, then that should form the focus and body of your
hook -- right or wrong, that's the sense of story I'm getting here, because it's
the last sentence of your hook that engages and intrigues me. The rest feels
like lead-up. Also, give us some sense of characterization, who Darrell and
Elaine are. Right now they're just names. And I'm assuming Darrell is the

Also, how and why did this woman Elaine 'coerce' him into what seems a
rescue mission? If she's forcing him to do something he doesn't want to do, that
doesn't really seem like a promising start to a relationship--and Darrell
doesn't seem particularly heroic. Which is fine if that's how he starts out the
story – caring only for himself and his kid -- but he needs to change and grow
through the story, and the reader needs a better sense of how he does that.

Some potential here, but not ready yet. Pass.

So, looks like I'm getting better at hook writing, but I'm still not as good as I would like. On the bright side, I think my sample pages are so vastly much stronger that they alone will be a big aid in convincing agents that they want to request a partial when I start submitting ALDEN RIDGE. I'll have to keep working on my hook, too, of course, but fortunately I've started early and can go through a number of drafts if I have to. Hmm. It's a lot easier to recognize what's good and what's not in other people's hooks than it is to craft one of my own. But I feel like I'm getting better, and that's all anyone can really do--keep getting better.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Chapter 6 is finished.

And Chapter 7 is started, too. Another 1,000 words tonight.

Turns out the last scene of Chapter 6 was shorter than I had imagined it would be, but it's basically just internal conflict of one of the main characters, and so that can't go on too long. About 250 words is long enough to get the important ideas across without stating anything too baldly or repeating myself. That's is good: I'm learning brevity. This is the first pure "thinking scene" that I've had in this book, and I'm glad it was very short. I generally try to avoid scenes like this for a variety of reasons, but in this limited case I felt it was necessary and appropriate. I imagine that this will be the last such scene in this book.

The first 220 words of Chapter 7 are also a little bit slower-than-average, but then all hell breaks loose and things should be going strong and fast for a while yet. I'm well into the hell-breaking-loose section already, so I'm really pleased with that. I'm going to need to do more preplanning for the coming scenes and chapters, but I'm really excited about writing them. It's a nice change of pace to feel excited about writing again, as I did today, rather than feeling like it's a difficult chore I know I have to get to. That's a really good feeling.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
16,793 / 95,000 (17.7%)

Another kind of "Hook"

Anyone else remember the movie Hook with fondness? You know the one I mean: from 1991, with Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Robert Deniro, John Williams, et al? Great movie, and one of my childhood favorites. My wife and I decided to watch it tonight, and it brought back a lot of great memories.

Every time I watch that movie I catch numerous little details that I never noticed before, but this time I was particularly paying attention to the writing. It's really good, and I don't just say that because I grew up with this movie (I also loved the cult classic Transformers: The Movie as a kid, and it seems like utter nonsense now). The writer deftly introduces the entire Peter Pan legend, which is essential backstory, and introduces a number of fairly complex ideas without repeating them over and over. Elements of the Pan mythology are only introduced when they have relevance to the plot, and so there is a constant feeling of purpose to all the scenes. For me and my wife, there is also a genuine feeling of magic, of being transported to another place.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked over at Rotten Tomatoes and saw that out of 35 professional film critics who had reviewed this work, only 20% of them gave it a positive review. Yikes! Even most of those critics who liked it seemed to have reservations, and the others called it lots of mean names. Spielberg's worst. A five million dollar show with a five cent script. Devoid of magic and mystery. Boring. Entertaining for kids under five, but worthless for everyone else.

I repeat: yikes! I feel really bad for the author of this screenplay, because this collective criticism seems really unjust. Most of the time I agree with the general consensus among movie critics--there are exceptions, but I feel like they generally get it right as a group. Yet their treatment of Hook makes me wonder if I'm letting any good movies slip through the cracks just because critics are jaded and sometimes unreasonable.

How can I trust film critics as a group if so many of them miss the subtle genius and the the magic of a movie like Hook? Meanwhile, Borat receives a 91% rating? Just because a movie has an incisive cultural message doesn't make all that crudity into something I consider quality art. If you approach viewing films (or reading books) as just your daily grind--especially if you aren't inherently excited about today's particular material--then that surely must color your opinion and create a sense of detachment from the material.

This is the same sort of thing that seems to happen with readers of the slush pile. The volume is so high in the case of the slush pile (and the quality so much lower) that this grim outlook is understandable, but to reviewers of published works there doesn't seem to be much excuse. I much prefer the critics in our industry to that of the film industry. There are many undefinable qualities about what makes art good or great, but there are also some very concrete criteria that serve as a sort of baseline--in the film industry, a lot of critics seem to blur the two, but in our industry it seems like this is generally less of a problem.

I've actually drifted away from my original point, and that is: even if a large number of people can't see that your work is any good, that doesn't mean it isn't. Even if you or I hate it or love it, that doesn't mean that either of us is right, either. Art of has a life and a value all its own, independent of what anybody thinks.

Friday, April 20, 2007

More Progress On Chapter 6

I wrote a thousand words tonight, and revised about twice that, all in only two hours. A fair bit of the material that I wrote wasn't in my preplanning, either, so that's doubly pleasing. This chapter is really turning out a lot different (better) than I had planned, even though the general themes and emotions that I focus on are mostly the same. I've just found a much better way of evoking them.

Not much else to report on the writing front. I think this is solid material that won't need to be cut much (though there is one sequence that might need to be trimmed down a hair--I'll have to look at it later, and get my wife to look at it, to know for sure). At this point I've only got one smallish scene left to write, and then I'll be done with Chapter 6 at last. That's exciting for me, because chapters 5 and 6 are likely to have been the two hardest chapters for me to write in the whole book, and I'll be past that hump. Those were both transitional chapters of a sort, and that can be wicked hard to do correctly early in a book. I'm sure I'll have hard spots later on in, but I'll already have a lot more material established with the characters, setting, etc, when I get to those. Past experience tells me that that helps a lot.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
15,735 / 95,000 (16.6%)

On Originality and Art

Just yesterday I stumbled upon the wonderful blog of Sean Ferrell, an author from New York. I highly recommend that you check it out. Yesterday's post was about a survey noting the high job satisfaction among authors (take that for what you will, since we know nothing of the pool they used for the survey--but I like to think it's true), and today's post is about the need for true artists who don't just try to conform to what is presently popular. The bulk of the post is a letter from Bob Ezrin, who discusses this need in the context of the music industry.

Sean points out the similarities to the book publishing industry, and I think that's right on. The part that makes me happiest is that I don't believe the publishing industry is exercising the sort of creative meddling that Ezrin notes is present in the music industry. Yes, I think that there are certain topics that are known to sell, and certain requirements to catch the attention of the modern reader (ahem**pacing**ahem), but I think that the industry generally knows a great writer when it sees it. Great books that are slower might not always get published until a writer has made more of a following for himself/herself, but that's just the competitive nature of the business, not conscious meddling by editors or agents.

Why, then, do I find Ezrin's letter to be so relevant? Because there is a censor in this industry--and it's us, the aspiring writers. We often censor ourselves, trying to create something that will be instantly popular, rather than something that is important to us. I frequent a number of agents' blogs, and a hot topic at all of them is "What are editors looking for?" What trends are hot? How can I easily make my way in? These are questions that I pay very little attention to, personally.

With all my recent worrying over issues of pacing, I imagine it's pretty clear that I'm making some changes to my style in order to hopefully sell ALDEN RIDGE where THE GUARDIAN hasn't yet sold. While this is true, these are nothing more than just issues of structure. The modern standards of fiction structure are something that we'll all have to conform to for at least our debut novel, and we might gripe about that, but in truth these standards help us reach a broader audience than we would otherwise be able to. Even though I'm consciously trying to make ALDEN RIDGE as fast-paced as I reasonably can, I'm still writing about something which is important to me, and which doesn't just follow the norms of any one genre.

Pacing is a tool, a technical skill to be learned like grammar or the use of literary devices, and for debut novelists it is just as important. But just because you need to use certain tools to succeed doesn't mean that you have to try to find "popular" subjects to write about. I very much believe that any subject can be interesting as a story if told skillfully enough. Write what's important to you, in your own unique and original way, and your passion for the subject will infuse your work with a life that is impossible to consciously manufacture. This is what I take away from Ezrin's letter.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


The first 25 hooks are up for the Fangs, Fur, & Fey contest. If you have time, it's great reading and I'm sure the authors would all really like community feedback. There's already been a lot of feedback from many people, but one can never have too much information, right? So far I've been making comments for each of the hooks posted, but I don't know if I'll be able to continue that through the entire contest--only 10% of the entries have even been released so far! Hopefully the judges will keep releasing them gradually, which will make this easier on everyone else, but I know they have lives too, and their own work.

All of this commenting has cut into my writing time a lot, but I don't mind a bit. In the process of reading all these hooks, I'm starting to see them more like an agent or an editor would, and that's invaluable for my own hook writing. It's funny how certain hooks just immediately stand out because of their ideas or voice, while others lose me nearly as immediately because of muddled language. Plus, it's always easier to recognize what others do right--and wrong--than it is to see in your own writing. If you're a student of hook-writing, as any aspiring novelist has to be, reading and reviewing these hooks can be a pretty valuable experience.

An interesting post on gun control

Over at Ideas Change the World All the Time, I saw this interesting post. It discusses the gun control debate in the aftermath of this week's incident, and how Australia handled this matter after a similar-scale incident in 1996. I have to say, I prefer Australia's response.

Rifles and such for hunting are one thing, sidearms for law enforcement officers are another, but I don't see the need for semiautomatic guns for "home protection" or just general civilian use. I'm not opposed to guns, but I think that allowing people to have such powerful weapons for no reason whatsoever is more than a little foolish.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On the subject of violence

I could discuss various atrocities that have struck our country this week, but I think we are all pretty much in agreement that these are terrible things. This really strikes home for me and especially for my wife, who has had the misfortune to be involved in two such horrible incidents: one which happened mere feet in front of her, and the other of which involved the murder of a dear friend. She also has some ties to VT, actually (what is this?). So yes, you might say that we both have strong feelings on the subject of violence at universities.

Perhaps I should write a much longer, much more eloquent essay on this subject, but for the moment words fail me. I don't know what the solution is to this problem, or how to keep such violence from constantly recurring. After this latest incident gun control is the hot topic, and I'm all for that, but that doesn't stop people who want to use cars or blunt objects to inflict their horrors upon the world. As my wife has aptly pointed out, all three of the individuals in all three cases exhibited warning signs of varying severity and/or had prior histories. Better screening by universities, or at least better education of faculty, staff and students should be required. The list of incredibly severe warning signs with this latest guy is amazing, but never underestimate the power of selective perception. Unless they have been involved in a previous incident, people rarely see the danger until it is too late. That's what has to stop.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Some days are for writing, others are not.

Unlike the last three days, today was. After something of a dry spell on motivation, I finally managed to get some real writing done today. I'm pleased with the result--1,500 words, and all of it interesting enough to keep. I had been putting off writing because of some uncertainty with how to execute chapter 6, but those ideas have been marinating over the last few days, and I was finally able to act on them today. In the writing, I actually managed to integrate a new twist into the mystery of the book that I hadn't ever thought of before. I think that this new twist, plus the more active way in which I chose to write this chapter (versus what I had planned) makes for a much more interesting and tense set of scenes.

Every book needs downtime amidst all the fast pacing, or at least that's the common wisdom. I had intended this chapter to be that downtime, but the way I was planning to handle that just didn't feel right. The way I actually implemented it, the tension is still very much there, just lower-key. The things that had been causing most of the old tension have temporarily faded to the background a little bit, and a whole new set of tension sources are introduced. I actually like that a lot--it gives the reader a breather from some things, while still keeping them going with others.

In my first drafts of THE GUARDIAN, chapter six was where things got the slowest out of the whole book. On Beverly's advice, I wound up cutting most of the slowness and ruminative exposition in that chapter in favor of alternate minor sources of tension, much like what I'm now doing here. It's funny, because I didn't specifically think of taking her advice when writing this chapter, but I wound up doing it anyway. It's really reassuring to think that I'm internalizing her lessons that well.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
14,768 / 95,000 (15.5%)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Updates to website

Okay, so I haven't done any writing yet today. I knew this was going to happen. I've spent most of the day working on tweaking little things about the blog and website, and working on my Author Bio page, which is now up. Also, I finally have a better author photo now--that's on the new Bio page. My wife is an excellent photographer (these are her photos on each of the sidebars), and we had a photo session in the woods near our house today (I'm a woods kind of guy).

I put a lot of time into this Author Bio, and consequently it is a lot longer than I had been anticipating. But I've had a pretty unusual life thus far, so hopefully someone finds it interesting. Regular readers of my blog are already familiar with basically everything in my "Novelist" section of the Bio, but there are some things in the "Software Developer" section that might surprise you. Such as: I got engaged to my wife when we were both still in high school. Also, my road to my present job as lead developer at Starta Development was pretty nonstandard. Anyone else have any strange life stories that you'd like to share?

Writing Did Occur Today

One last note before I head off to bed. With all this work on the blog and website today, you might think I didn't get any work done on my actual book. You might have thought that I was just procrastinating all day long (even though a website is useful, it's still not writing). Well, you'd be wrong! This morning before work I was able to write just over 600 words--in half an hour.

The scene was laid out and I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so it just popped right on out onto the page. MUCH better than those times when I can barely hit 400 words after two hours of struggling. I had intended to at least double that this evening, but the website admittedly did siphon away all of that potential writing time. I'll just have to work extra hard on it tomorrow, and ignore the temptation to keep updating my website.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
13,237 / 95,000 (13.9%)

Excerpt from ALDEN RIDGE

I promised to post an excerpt from ALDEN RIDGE nearly a month ago, but I never did. Partly this was because I am still actively working on the book, and negative feedback could have derailed me pretty easily. But my confidence has risen a lot lately, so I thought I would make good on my earlier promise and finally put it online. You can see the first two chapters here, on my new website.

Major Blog Overhaul, Plus New Website

I've been meaning to set up a website for a while now, but today I finally bit the bullet and did it. You can check out what little is there so far at (I set up my hosting through Lunarpages, which I used from 1999-2003, if anyone is interested). It's nice to have a real web presence again--Blogger is great, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I want to display content that doesn't fit easily into the format of a blog.

As part of the roll out of my new website, I've made a consolidated theme that also spans over to this blog (as I'm sure you have already noticed, unless you're reading this via RSS). The navigation links at the very top take you back and forth between my website and my blog--it's a very graceful transition, I think, even though the website and blog are hosted on two separate servers. If only I could achieve the same level of integration with Picassa... oh well, that just pops open in a new window when you click Art Gallery, so that's not too bad.

Feedback and thoughts on the new blog/site design would be much appreciated. I tried out several ideas, but ultimately went with this one because it is clean and spare. The images on the sidebar give a much-needed bit of color and warmth, I think, without overwhelming the rest of the design. There's a lot of white space here, and I really like that. But what do you think?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Preplanning Chapter 6

Well, tonight was definitely a productive night. Aside from polishing my ALDEN RIDGE hook for the FFF contest (my submission is now in), I also managed to get a large amount of prewriting done--852 words worth, actually. That completely maps out the next two scenes of chapter 6 (out of a total of four, including the one that I wrote last night). I haven't started on the detailed prewriting for the last scene yet, but I'll probably hold off on that until after I've finished writing the scenes leading up to it.

Once again, I'm pleased with the results of my efforts. The scenes that I've laid out are definitely a bit of a breather from the high tension of the previous chapters, but at the same time there is some tension between the characters, and the reader learns a few things in each scene that are unsettling or at least mildly disturbing. I think it's a good mix. And with so much prewriting material in hand, I'll be able to hit 3K-ish words for this chapter with ease, with no temptation to add unneeded dialogue or extraneous scenery descriptions just for the purpose of length.

I know that sounds like a stupid thing to ever do, but surely I'm not the only one with the subconscious tendency to meander when I feel like my material isn't large enough for the chapter that is supposed to contain it. That's always dangerous territory, and I hate when I find myself in those situations--those times are usually more towards the start of books, for me. Now I'm starting to get into the territory where I can easily come up with more material than can actually fit in my chapter--and that's exactly where I want to be. That way, I can cut those ideas that are weakest. It's a much better situation.

For instance, THE GUARDIAN is broken up into five parts. Part IV took a TON of prewriting for me to do--let's say 15K words of prewriting outside of all the other prewriting I did for that book/series. Part IV itself wound up being about 30K words in my first draft, and 26K words after all my various revisions. In my original 15K of prewriting, I planned out about twice as many events as I actually wrote--that section alone could have been 60K long in my first draft. That's a short novel on its own! But instead, as I wrote Part IV over a period of about 3 months (it was hard writing, and there were other demands on my free time during that period), I was able to drop all the weaker ideas. There was overwriting-in-wording in Part IV, but there wasn't any overwriting-in-scenes. When I went back through and did my massive cuts based on Beverly Swerling's advice, I cut vastly less out of Parts IV and V than I did in the preceding parts. The reason was simple: the material was tighter and stronger, because my prewriting ideas had undergone a much more Darwinian process during those segments of the book.

That's what I'm trying to do with the entirety of ALDEN RIDGE. That's what will make my writing consistently tight and fast paced throughout the work. So far that has happened both during the prewriting stages and during the revisions, but this level of prewriting is a good sign that perhaps less revision will be needed on the coming chapters. But only time will tell, and I'm certainly not planning to ever give myself the benefit of the doubt on things like this. Writers can't afford to.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Revised ALDEN RIDGE Hook

After a lot of editorial help from my wife, I now have an updated version of my ALDEN RIDGE hook to show you. The content is basically the same as the first version, but the writing is condensed by about 70 words or so, and it includes a lot more descriptive imagery. It also eliminates a few awkward wordings ("Those two alone," for instance), and combines several sentences that were previously only expressing half-ideas. Here it is:
The year is 2018, and it has been nearly a decade since civilization ended at the hands of the undead grey men—all that remains are small bands of survivors huddling in isolated towns. Darrell Williams and his four year-old daughter Lela drift downriver after escaping from Stantonsburg, which has been overrun. They find shelter at an abandoned factory just outside of Alden Ridge, where Elaine Levine-Ward and several other survivors have been living ever since That Day. No one notices the menace that has drifted downriver with them.

When Darrell arrives, the rest of the factory’s inhabitants have not yet returned from scavenging sulfur at an abandoned farm. Elaine coerces Darrell into an expedition to find them—but the rescue ends in disaster. After nine years of constancy, the grey men are suddenly becoming more violent and aggressive, and frighteningly persistent. Soon other dark creatures—some of them human—begin creeping into town. Darrell and Elaine’s only hope of saving Alden Ridge from Stantonsburg’s fate is to somehow discover the secrets behind the rise of the grey men, and the fall of the modern world.

My opening and closing sentences are virtually unchanged, but the interior of the two paragraphs had a fair bit of work done on them. I think the ending sentence of the first paragraph is particularly more powerful than in the first version (which was pathetically generic, cliche, and empty, I now realize). Hopefully this new version of the hook will maintain a constant, high level of reader interest throughout. But there's always still room for improvement. Any thoughts?

Alden Ridge Hook, and Fangs, Fur, & Fey Contest

Never pass up an opportunity for good feedback. To that end, I note that there is a contest going on at Fangs, Fur, & Fey. Hopefully you've all seen this contest before now, especially if you're an urban fantasy writer. But the contest is open to writers of fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, and other genres, so you might be able to participate even if you don't write urban fantasy. They will be accepting up to 180 hooks, which will be public posted and reviewed by a panel of judges. The best 12 will get to submit the first 5 pages of their work, and those will also be publicly posted and reviewed. The winner gets to have their first 50 pages or first 3 chapters critiqued by literary agent Rachel Vater. That's a great prize, but just being part of the contest itself, and having your hook reviewed, would be wonderful.

So, I've been working on a hook for ALDEN RIDGE, which I'm presently billing as supernatural thriller. Obviously ALDEN RIDGE isn't finished yet, but that isn't a condition of the contest. Since this book is my primary focus right now, this is the one that I'm going to submit to the contest. It opens tonight at 12 AM, and that's when I intend to make my submission. Here's my hook (which has no more spoilers than the back of a book):

The year is 2018, and it has been nearly a decade since civilization ended at the hands of the undead grey men. All that remains of our world are small bands of survivors huddling in isolated towns. Darrell Williams has been living with his four year-old daughter Lela in Stantonsburg, but after years of attacks their town is finally overrun. Those two alone escape to Alden Ridge, a neighboring town with fully thirty survivors. There the situation has not yet become dire—but everything starts to change when Darrell and Lela arrive.

Elaine Levine Ward has been living with her boyfriend Jeff in an abandoned factory just outside Alden Ridge ever since That Day. When Darrell arrives, it has been nearly a full day since Jeff left to scavenge sulfur from an abandoned farm. Elaine reluctantly gives Darrell and Lela shelter on the condition that Darrell will help rescue Jeff—but the rescue ends in disaster, and Elaine and Darrell barely escape the farm with their own lives. After nine years of constancy, the grey men are suddenly becoming more violent and aggressive, and frighteningly persistent. Soon other dark creatures—some of them human—begin creeping into town, and there are more deaths. Darrell and Elaine’s only hope of saving Alden Ridge from Stantonsburg’s fate is to somehow discover the secrets behind the rise of the grey men, and the fall of the modern world.

What do you think? Suggestions would be appreciated, and I'd be more than happy to look at the hooks of others, too.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Writing, revising, and new monitors

Only 300 new words tonight, but that's because I spent most of my time revising the work I did yesterday. It didn't have to be flushed out as much as I thought it might, though minor adjustments were required for tone and pacing throughout (plus the myriad of first-draft fixes that are always necessary, of course). I definitely had a case of adjectivitis, but those darn adjectival growths were easily lanced from otherwise healthy prose.

That puts me squarely into chapter 6 now, which my 300 new words are the beginning of, but I still need to do a lot more planning of the specifics of this chapter before I'll be ready to write the rest of it. I've got the general idea of what I want to have happen, and I know where I want to end up, but this chapter is one that could easily turn into bridge scenes that will just have to be cut later if I'm not careful. So in the meantime I need to figure out what these scenes change, what they reveal about the characters, and how they advance my sub-plots. Normally I'd also want to figure out how they would advance the main plot, but this chapter is intended to be a slight bit of a breather after several chapters of moderate tension and one of very high tension.

True to Anne Mini's advice, there will still need to be plenty of tension in these scenes, but it will need to be a different sort of tension other than what the main plot provides. This is one of those kinds of chapter that is tricky for me; I'll have to plan carefully, so that the reader is carried swiftly through and yet feels some release from the main tension without letting pacing suffer. I'm pretty confident that I know how to do that, but we'll see what I come up with. It may be a few days before I'm ready to start writing on this again, though, so there might not be any/many blog posts during that time. But I'm very excited, because chapter 6 basically marks the start of the next segment of my book, and this is where the rules and situations that I've so far set up in the book start to change (for the first time). It's an evolutionary sort of story, and I'm excited to finally be hitting the first change point.

On an unrelated note, my computer monitors have been driving me nuts recently. Because of my programming work, I use two monitors side-by-side--trust me, once you get used to that, you can't go back. Anyway, both monitors were old 17" Dell CRTs that were at least six years old, and both had a nasty case of the flickers. That'll wear your eyes out fast. Additionally, the right-hand monitor had been making this high pitched whine every so often for the last few months. It's gotten a lot worse recently, so that it's been just about constant. I spend a lot of hours on the computer every day, and this was making for some major headaches.

I've wanted to get an LCD monitor for years, even back to when the 15" models cost just under $600 and the viewing angle and brightness were complete crap. But the cost always deterred me, not the least of which because I'd need two. But with the recent problems with my existing monitors, I decided it was finally time. I looked around online, and discovered that Circuit City is actually running a pretty amazing deal. The price was right, and with such good contrast, brightness, viewing angle, and response rate this was the obvious pick for me. I've never used the ProView brand of monitors before, so hopefully it's as reliable as the myriad of other brands I've used.

I'll let you know if I have any problems, but so far I'm loving it. The high pitched sound is gone, the picture is much brighter and crisper than my old CRTs ever were, and the display area of a 17" LCD panel is much larger than that of a 17" CRT because of how they are measured. I could easily run these new monitors at 1280x1024, but I'm choosing to keep them to 1024x768 to make it easier on my eyes. Makes me feel a like an old man, but it's probably better for me in the long run. I've mostly been writing on my laptop, since the monitors on my desktop were bothering me so much, but tonight I actually wrote on my desktop for the first time in over a year. Woo-hoo!

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
12,653 / 95,000 (13.3%)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A new wind

Tonight I wrote just over 1,700 words. Good words, too, that I won't have to cut later. I'll actually have to flush this section out a little more (as is common for me with action scenes), and that's a really good feeling after having so many problems with overwriting in past sessions.

I actually wrote about 700 words over the weekend, too, but didn't have time to make a blog post. So, this means I'm finally done with chapter 5--revising aside--and can move on to chapter 6. I'm really pleased right now for a number of reasons. First, tonight's total is the most I have written since starting ALDEN RIDGE. This is getting back into the sort of volume I produced when things were really going well with THE GUARDIAN. Volume isn't everything, of course, but this is actually quality work that flowed reasonably smoothly out of my head and onto the screen. Writing has been too much like pulling teeth recently, and this was therefore a very welcome change.

That's the second reason I'm so pleased at this point: the various mental blockages that I've been facing seem to have finally been overcome. As much as I've tried not to let my bad experiences with trying to find an agent for THE GUARDIAN affect me negatively, they definitely have. The whole experience has also been hugely positive, because I've really learned a lot from it and taken my craft up several notches--but at the same time all the rejections pretty much sapped my confidence completely away. Even the numerous positive reactions I have gotten to THE GUARDIAN didn't help all that much in the end. The bad stuff is easier to believe.

But, the good news is that my confidence seems to have returned. This is thanks largely to Orson Scott Card and Anne Mini. I've been reading through Anne's category of Manuscript Megaproblems, and that has been hugely informative as well as ultimately cathartic. It's a relief to see that I don't do so many of the things that she points out, and her way of presenting the issues relating to pacing gave me one of those Aha! moments in which I finally realized how pacing is supposed to work these days. That moment came on Saturday, and I've been working on adjusting my style to that realization ever since. Tonight seems to indicate that this new way of thinking about my writing is working (I'll explain these thoughts further in a later post).

I mentioned Orson Scott Card as being a huge help as well, because I've been going back and reading ENDER'S GAME, SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, XENOCIDE, and CHILDREN OF THE MIND over the last few weeks. ENDER'S GAME is my favorite book ever, and it is brilliantly paced--this is something like the eighth time I've read that book, and another close study of it was very helpful in getting me to realize what I should be doing with my own writing. SPEAKER is slightly slower paced, but still so chock full of great plotting and ideas that nobody cares. A close study of that was also very informative, since it allowed me to see OSC's strengths in a book with a much different structure than the first of the Ender series. XENOCIDE is terribly slow, and yet I find the ideas and events of that book to be extremely significant to myself. It's a wonderful book, a triumph in many ways, but not one that most people would re-read as often as ENDER'S GAME or SPEAKER. It is also the sort of book that could never be someone's debut, and it was useful to analyze it to see where the pacing broke down (in the sense of what a modern debut book would have to be, anyway).

All this reading and close study of Orson Scott Card's mastery of the craft, plus mulling over Anne Mini's incredibly insightful blog posts, got me back on track after nothing else has been able to. This weekend I also re-read my entire ms so far with an eye towards what I have learned, and I made a few more edits throughout. At this point, I'm extremely happy with what I have so far on this book. Whether or not it lands me representation and ultimately publication (I of course hope it will), it's making some pretty major steps in the right direction.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
12,342 / 95,000 (13.0%)

Friday, April 6, 2007

On Overwriting And Pacing

I just did stumble across the blog of Anne Mini today, and it's full of interesting advice. I definitely recommend you take a look if you haven't been there before. Her most recent post, Is that line really necessary?, really hit home for me. This really seems to match what agent Matt Bialer told me (that ten years ago he would have felt confident about selling THE GUARDIAN to a publisher, but not so much now).

This sort of thing is scary to me. I'm not a big fan of slow books, either, and I certainly understand the need for good, fast pacing, but the idea that a new writer must have "a conflict on every page" is a little depressing to me. Read Ms. Mini's post before you comment on that statement. Hopefully the aforementioned "conflict" includes underlying tension, be it suspense-based (something terrible might happen at any moment now) or question-based (I HAVE to know what's going on here). If those are fair game for this "conflict on every page" rule, then I'm game for that. I'm trying to maintain both types of suspense throughout ALDEN RIDGE.

And yes, I know she is saying that the "conflict on every page" is the old rule, and that the new rule is interest in every line. I just take that to mean that useless interjections of backstory and scenery description are no good. That I already knew, and I'm working on that (hence the 1,200 words of cutting yesterday, for instance).

This is what I'm starting to realize: that perhaps THE GUARDIAN just doesn't have some of those qualities of pacing that a debut novel needs these days--or it doesn't have those qualities soon enough in the narrative, at least. But rather than trying to rewrite that book to make it something it's not, I think it's better that I just focus on ALDEN RIDGE. Hopefully that book will have more of the up-front pacing that agents and editors want to see for a debut novel, and if it does well, then I can talk to my agent about THE GUARDIAN. It isn't that I'm giving up on THE GUARDIAN--it's not a trunk manuscript--but I'm definitely starting to think that it may not be my debut. Maybe one of my queries will come back from an agent telling me otherwise, but that's becoming less likely every day. It's too bad, too--the twist and ending of that book are killer. But in the end it's all just a question of timing, and what the market is like at any given point.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Axe session

My wife read through my new content today, and, as I had feared, there were parts of my last chapter that were too bloated. She marked spots and we went through them all, cutting and clarifying. In all, we cut almost 1,200 words. That's a lot more than I had intended! Oh well, these are good changes, and she likes the pacing the way it is now. I have some pretty cool scenes in there that I hadn't thought much about, so it was nice when she recognized those.

The funny thing is, most of the sections that were cut were ones that I had agonized over. Wondering how to best describe the details of some scenery, or how to describe the characters' actions at some certain point. I did a pretty good job of producing clear, well-written prose that did just that. But it was still extraneous and had to be cut. What's humorous about this is that if I had just not written those parts to begin with, I would have been able to make much better progress on my writing than I have so far. It's often little details like those sorts of wordings and descriptions that bog me down the longest.

Oh well, I'm still getting the hang of writing-without-overwriting. It's good to have this sort of feedback as I go, so that I can correct as I'm working. The problem here was that I was just expounding too much on some bridge scenes, when really a sentence or two would suffice. I have an unfortunate natural tendency to do that, and so I'm trying to train myself not to. Fortunately, things are about to kick up a notch in my story (my pool of characters increases, which is very helpful), so hopefully there won't even be the temptation for writing those stupid bridge scenes that I'll just have to cut later.

At any rate, now that these cuts have been made I feel that my last couple of chapters are as strong as my first ones for this book were. That's a good feeling in the end, even though I don't like discovering that I need to do a bunch of cuts. The new total:

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
9,903 / 95,000 (10.4%)

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

More on Chapter 5

Progress continues, though still not as quickly as I would like. I wrote 700 more words tonight on Chapter 5, "The Farm," and solidified my plans for the remainder of the chapter. I'm actually pretty relieved about that, because I've had a real block on that part of this chapter ever since I first started planning it a few weeks ago. It's a pivotal emotional scene early in the book, and I just wasn't happy with my original vague plan. But I really like what I have so far on that scene, and now I'm finally happy with my plans for the rest of it, too. It's really surprising how different that entire scene is from what I had originally imagined--in setting, tone, everything. It's a lot more original the way I actually wrote it, and much stronger.

I guess I've been writing for long enough that I shouldn't still be surprised at that, but I always am. I've had pivotal scenes go sour in the actual writing before, so I'm always wary of that, and pleasantly surprised when a scene comes out better than I expected in the first draft. So far I haven't written anything in ALDEN RIDGE that I feel like is going to need a lot of rewriting later; that wasn't the case with my first draft of THE GUARDIAN. I guess I'm getting better at this.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
11,078 / 95,000 (11.7%)