Sign up for my newsletter to be among the first to learn of upcoming titles!

[writing] The quarter just ended

First quarter of 2009 has been interesting from a writing perspective.

Sold three solo stories (one flash, one short, one novella) and two co-authored with (one short, one novelette). Ten short fiction rejections.

Sold three stories in reprint, along with Polish rights to Trial of Flowers.

40,900 words of new short fiction (one novella, one novelette, three short stories).

Revised Pinion and delivered it to Tor for editorial review.

Delivered The Sky That Wraps to Subterranean for pre-production.

Extended The Heart of the Beast from ‘s outline and partial, including 50,100 new words. Back to him for revision.

Outlined Endurance from scratch, twice.

Wrote the foreword for ‘s Push of the Sky.

Made the Hugo ballot, sort of, as an explanatory note to the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form nomination for METAtropolis.

Plus a bunch of blog posts, twittering, miscellanous blurbage, nonfiction writing and Ghu knows what else.

How was your writing year so far?

[process] Fun with outlines

I continue to leg-wrestle with the Endurance outline. 1,500 new words yesterday and a lot of thinking. As noted before, working on Sunspin and The Heart of the Beast has seriously rearranged my outlining process. It’s a challenge, in the “growth opportunity” sense, not in the “stumbling block” sense.

I plan to be done with this by the weekend, because I need to revising Tourbillon next week. When I am done, I’ll make a more detailed post about my experience of the process shifts and what I think it might mean. Mostly what it means, I hope, is a stronger book.

[process] Endurance outline

Spent quite a bit of time on the Endurance outline today, got about 2,000 words in. This isn’t an issue of being unproductive, but more like the gears clashing on my process changes of late. I’m adapting a lot of what I’ve learned from The Heart of the Beast and Sunspin, and it’s taking quite a bit of careful thought.

Wound up having something of a story conference with this evening, just to validate my approach and bounce some reality-check type questions off her. She had some shrewd responses which were very helpful. That sort of early sharing is way outside my historical process, which is to keep this stuff close to the vest until the draft hits the page.

Oddly enough, a carefully considered outline requires careful consideration. Still, I can see this sucker moving into shape.

[process] Sticking to ideas in the face of the shiny

, in response to my recent post about the books queued in my head [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], asked the the following question:

How do you keep teh shiny at bay, though?

My biggest problem is getting an idea and having it so overwhelm my thinking process that it derails the WIP. How do you keep that from happening? Your list would (does) slay my productivity with the neurotic notion that I’ll let something fade before I’ve captured it.

To which I responded:

My big secret? If it fades, it wasn’t that shiny.

That’s why I stopped writing down ideas years ago. If it can’t stick in my head, it won’t stick in the reader’s head.

I only write the ones that really, really insist. And even then, only one at a time. If the next one is still insisting when I’m done, that’s pretty much proof positive.

This is an important point, at least for me as a writer. Long time readers of this blog may recall my four rules guidelines of writing. In the original version (linked from that post), number four was “Work on one thing at a time.”

“Work on one thing at a time” is a big part of how I handle the issue Elf refers to. Long before I ever sold a damned thing, I used to believe ideas were precious. I wrote them down a lot, in text files and notebooks, long lists of titles, phrases, images, concepts. Eventually I came to realize that for me, ideas are very nearly the most trivial part of the process. Stop me in a hall sometime and ask me for six story ideas. I can give them to you in about a minute, from just looking around.

Obviously, this depends on your definition of “idea”. If an idea has to come with an outline, a character, a plot, a resolution, and a fair amount of detail attached, well, no, it doesn’t work the way I described. But I can and have written entire novels based on one brief mental image. Virtually all of my short fiction works that way still. It’s like the grain of sand at the heart of the pearl — Fred will grow the story if I just bed him with the proper irritant.

Hence my perception of my own process as having been largely based on unconscious competence. It’s long been clear to me that I have no real idea what I’m actually doing when I’m writing, since to me, writing is an extension of reading: I am experiencing the story as it hits the page, with many of the same moments of wonder and anger and tension that you the reader (hopefully) will. This is part of why 99% of the time I write in reading order, no matter how nonlinear or complex the plot and structure might be. I don’t write fiction so much as channel it, and enjoy the ride along the way.

Parenthetically, this ties to why the process of working on The Heart of the Beast has been so exciting for me. As I’ve discussed repeatedly [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], I’ve much to my surprise developed a stronger sense of conscious control over the fiction and its flow with this project than I ever have possessed before. This in turn gives me a much better set of explicitly supported tools for creating future work.

One way I deal with the shiny of ideas, to point back to Elf’s question, is with the cloakroom of ideas. That’s me operating metaphor for what I do with cool, shiny things to see if they will stick in my head. I don’t need to write them down. Something else cool and shiny will be along shortly — much like drunk drives outside a frat party, there’s one every minute. It’s ones that stick which count for me. Those I take out and work on, one at a time.

[books|writing] Thinking about the road ahead

So here in my post-novel ennui of the past 24 hours, I have sold a novella, signed 500 sig sheets of the METAtropolis limited edition, mailed out a few more Green ARCs, done story marketing WRPA in which I noted that I recently passed the 250 stories mark, have been working several interesting short fiction publishing deals, and, um, cleaned my house. But I already reported that last bit.

My brain being what it is, I’m quite actively thinking about the road ahead, book-wise. Here’s what’s committed, what’s on deck, and what’s floating in my backbrain waiting for time and focus.

Committed

  • Revisions to Tourbillon (March)
  • Revisions to the Heart of the Beast (whenever Jeff gets them to me)

On Deck

  • Continue to write first volume of diplomatic/espionage thriller series with my Dad the retired ambassador (as time permits)
  • Develop collaborative concepts with (YA trilogy) and (steampunk romance) (as time permits)
  • Draft Sunspin (From May through Ghu only knows when)

Backbrain

  • Sequel to Green
  • Original Destiny, Manifest Sin
  • Black Tulip
  • Reign of Flowers
  • As yet unnamed Mainspring book which started jogging my elbow as I worked on “Chain of Stars”

That last bunch won’t happen this year, and some of them may never happen unless there’s commercial demand, but they’re in my head. I already know that even if I were a full time writer, sans day job, I couldn’t write much more than I do now. It’s not like I can write any faster. In point of fact, recent bouts of hypergraphia aside, I’ve been trying to slow down in the interests of improved pacing and work quality.

It’s fun to juggle all these balls in my head. It will be interesting to see where and how they land in real life.

[writing] What drafting a book does to my life

First drafting a novel for me is always a bit of a sprint. Last spring, Green was about 200,000 words in 35 days. Last fall, Tourbillon was about 200,000 words in 51 days (I was being a slacker on that one). Just now, Heart of the Beast was 40,500 words in nine days, once I got to straight drafting, plus the eleven previous days of revision and bridge writing on Jeff’s draft. Not quite the long-haul sprint (so to speak) of the other books, but if you do the math, a comparable pace. (And we shan’t speak of what Sunspin is likely to be…)

When I come off of one these writing jags, it feels rather like running up the stairs and not realizing you’ve made it to the top. I look around the house and discover a bleeding mess. I look in the mirror and discover that my beard has advanced beyond the razor-wired Maginot line of my indifferent maintenance. I wonder why the laundry hasn’t been done, then remember that a) I live alone; and b) I haven’t been doing the laundry.

My IRL friends will tell you how distracted and generally unfocused, even inattentive, I become when I’m in manuscript mode. A book sort of eats my brain, and that’s almost the most fun I can have. But as all good things must come to an end, eventually I must recover equilibrium.

So tonight’s writing activities consisted of a bunch of house-cleaning and maintenance of various sorts, along with Con prep, packing and whatnot. Given that I’m leaving town tomorrow for nine days, this seems like as good a time as any, because I’d sure hate to come back to this mess.

[process] Learning from The Beast

Still thinking quite heavily over the experience of working on this just-completed draft of The Heart of the Beast. I’ve commented several times in recent weeks on the process working with a detailed, complex outline; something which is absolutely outside of my prior experience.

I’ve always said that my writing comes from deep within. That’s especially true of some of the work which I consider to be among my best. A classic example of “unconscious competence,” except that I seem to have skipped the stage of conscious competence to get there. With this work, I feel like I’m explicitly using some of the key tools of a novelist’s art with some deliberate precision and direction for the first time.

To render a specific example, I’ve never thought much about scene order or function within a plot, especially not when I’m drafting. I’m perfectly capable of articulating those concerns on revision or critique, but drafting has always felt like a black box activity to me. And I’ve become reasonably good at it over time, in a black box way.

Working with this detailed outline has enabled me to visualize the novel’s structure in much finer grained detail than I have normally (or possibly ever) done before. That in turn has meant that even while I was drafting, I was able to make choices about when certain scenes needed to fall, or where they needed to be moved to; and how other scenes needed to be added in to bring certain plot points or character transitions to the reader’s attention at the right moment in the flow of the text.

This sense of conscious control is something I’ve actively rejected in the past as being interference with my process. I’m acquiring an understanding of the power of the outlining technique which will probably take me quite sometime to internalize back to an unconsciously competent tool, but I’m pleased as punch to be doing even this.

All the above will seem to be originating from the “Sky is Blue” department to some of you reading this, but this is my journey. I love it when I discover new territory

[writing] Progris riport, day 20 and day the last, The Heart of the Beast

1,800 words over an hour and half, to finish about 102,000 words on The Heart of the Beast. 79 hours on the project as a whole.

I’m surprised, I’d expected another 4,000 words or so in the ending. This almost certainly means I rushed it, a very consistent flaw of mine linked at least in part to the kind of binge writing I did these past few days. Well, that’s what revisions are for. And I’m going to let Jeff deal with the issue — I’ll keep this around a few days, let a couple of trusted readers go over it for major issues I may want to flag or address, then it’s off to Jeff for revisions as he sees fit.

Part of our deal on this project is that whoever has the manuscript has unlimited control. So while I worked heavily from Jeff’s outline and existing material, I altered freely, rearranging some of the character relationships, remaking entire sections of plot and backstory and so forth. I’ve left a lot of notes embedded in the text for him to consider, but he’s just as free to attack it ab initio in whatever manner he sees fit.

A few statistics:

Hours spent reading material and backstory: 10
Hours spent writing/revision/drafting: 69
Word count read/revised: 51,900
Word count drafted fresh: 50,100
Elapsed days: 20 (continuous effort)

A few observations:

The process of working from this outline has significantly altered my view of how outlines should be used as writing tools.
The POV work in this book has broken loose some of the self-imposed strictures with which I have approached POV in long form work.
Both of these have been very liberating lessons for me.

More commentary to come, as time and my introspection permit.

The last WIP:

The day grew, unfolding like those desert flowers which must grow so fast that an observant man might watch their increase with his unaided eye, rising to meet the faint walking rain before all passes into austere, searing aridity for another season. Spring, having just arrived, is already broken on the altar of summer; for heat is the natural state of the desert.

Just as the desert-ocean labors under its burden of endless sunlight, so the oceanic desert bends beneath the same bright pressure. When the heat is higher in Black, even the birds in their flocks will fall from the sky, so fatigued from the temperatures that they perish as they plunge.

This morning, the dawn after the last night of the glassblowers’ festival, is only a harbinger of those killing days to come. Still, it stirs like air from one of the kilns, a baking inevitably striding in from distant sands and gravel pans to squat upon Black like a beggar shitting over a hole in the street. Even the breezes give up for a while, leaving only their burdens of scent and the year’s first sharp sweat. The recent snow is not even a memory now, just a child’s fantasy wrapped in the coolest basement shadows.

[process] Ouch, did anyone get the number of that manuscript?

I just realized that I have written slightly over 20,000 words of first draft fiction in the past three days. No wonder I’m feeling a bit whacked upside the head. Mind you, I’ve written more than that in one day a time or two, but those are the kind of days that make you spend the next lying on the couch wishing they made pizza you could sip from a can so you wouldn’t have to get up.

This sort of hypergraphic frenzy can be typical of me finishing a novel, though on the last two first draft projects (Green and Tourbillon) I limited my daily wordcount to guard against burnout, so I never hit this level of burst production.

Chances are very good that ordinarily I would finish The Heart of the Beast tomorrow — I have a chapter and a half to go, maybe 6,000 words — except that I owe revisions on a novella to a market, and I promised them for tomorrow. So I expect I’ll put in my two hours tomorrow, then switch to the novella. But I’ll be startled if I don’t cap this sucker on Wednesday, unless Fred has saved up some real surprises for the ending.

I’ll talk more about wordage and burst mode and how this completely different outlining regimen has affected my process when I do the post-mortem later. For now, suffice to say there’s some very good reasons I’ve moved away from burst mode writing in general, but when it comes upon me, I don’t feel compelled to fight it off with torches and pitchforks.

[writing] Progris riport, day 19, The Heart of the Beast

5,200 words net over three hours, to 100,200 words on The Heart of the Beast. 77.5 hours on the project as a whole. Closing in nicely on the end, though I’ve left Jeff more than a few stinkers for his next pass through, on rewrite.

And the WIP:

The Scarred Man drew himself to his knees and opened a familiar line across his skin. Blood fountained, jetting and smoking as if it would burst into flame on contact with the open air, to wash the wound that Cole had made. He pressed his own opened skin against the crocodile’s, and felt the freight of their veins merge in a cold, exotic agony which was both completely novel and hauntingly familiar. And still he burned as if once more diving down into the very core of the Beast – the old Beast.

Sorrow moaned, its eye rolling as if to find a painless road to heaven. Benjobi pressed himself close, a contact almost sexual, beyond sexual, while a muttering crowd gathered around them. After a time which stretched beyond the boundary of the second and hours of the day, he felt an ebbing, a sense of being stretched back into the proper proportions of a man, equalized and rationalized and set free within his own skin.

Around him, Song saw the madfolk kneeling in prayer. Even the carnies were silent, respectful, as they had never been when they’d seen him only as a paymaster and a violent man to be feared.

[writing] Progris riport, day 18, The Heart of the Beast

5,500 words net over three hours, to 95,500 words on The Heart of the Beast. 74.5 hours on the project as a whole. This evening I quite literally have felt as if I could finish the book if I could only type all night. I doubt that’s actually true, but it confirms to me that Fred has the shape of things pretty much nailed down and is ready to commit them to the page.

I continue to be fascinated by my own experience with this project. The whole process of outlining is acquiring a different meaning for me through this effort, one which I’ll explore more fully when I get back to Sunspin in April or May. At the same time, Jeff and his Beast have also unlocked a stylistic door for me.

I’ve been experimenting for a long time with POV in short fiction. If you’ve read “America, Such as She Is” or “In the Forests of the Night” you’ve seen how this can work for me. Even more radical POV-wise is my extreme steampunk novella “The Baby Killers”, which will be out in 2010 from PS Publishing as a single-title book. But I’ve remained almost oddly conservative in how I handle POVs in novels, relying on very tight, regular structures, strict transitions and so forth.

The Heart of the Beast has me using my recently expanded short fiction toolkit in ways I’ve never applied them before at this length. Very liberating, a little bit frightening, and a hell of a lot of fun.

As usual, a WIP:

So their beach hikes were an irregular progression, a drunkard’s walk between the tinkle of metal and the sheen of buried devices on the one hand, and flocks of corbies and blackflies on the other, marking their biologic treasures much as a column of smoke indicated a distant fire. Commons thought Bayless a bit strange, but tolerated him for friendship’s sake. He knew that Bayless thought the same of him, fixated on worthless metal bits when the true machinery of the universe was ready to be exposed in the stretch of sinew and the winding of intestines.

Between them, like a bridge, Galendrace. Her own ambitions were pointed in a direction which led to no beach, unless a trunk full of books or scrolls were to have washed ashore; but she came because the two men she loved were there. At least, that was how Commons put it to himself when he could manage to overlook her extended sidelong glances at Bayless bent over some ravaged cuttlefish or waterlogged ship’s rat washed to its final port of call.

He knew she would be better with him than with Bayless, who would always be flighty and a bit of a fool and furthermore have his arms dirty to the elbow with the most questionable stains. It was just a matter of time until she saw this too, though Commons was sure that Galendrace already understood there was a more solid future in things, in possessions of value, than in the handling of the dead who, whatever their estate in life, were universally paupered by the grave.

[writing] Progris riport, day 17, The Heart of the Beast

9,400 words net over four and half hours, to 89,500 words on The Heart of the Beast. Some very strong words today, at least speaking from my subjective impressions of my own work. That’s always hard to tell — famously so, a writer is the worst judge of their own work. Still, I’m feeling very good about it.

As usual, a WIP:

With great land came great creatures, Erebus and Abaia and their kin, chthonic, titanic, each with legs larger than the highest cliffs and skulls that could cover mountain ranges and terrible, slow intelligences whose thoughts were writ with the writhing fires that marked those days. Just as men now are wrought of dust, so these ancients were wrought of magma and ash and the energies of worlds.

In time, all things breed; even time itself, spawning minutes and seconds like the milt of salmon in some high stream. So it is that mountains breed valleys and hills; valleys and hills give way to rocks and soil; and those descend to alluvial plains and fields filled with grasses and trees and the unquiet humming of insects; but still in each shining pebble by the bank of a stream there dwells a sliver of memory of what it once meant to be a great rocky claw riving the sky and drawing the horizon down to earth, to block out even the sun with your shadow. The least stone knows this of itself, just as the smallest acorn remembers the spreading oak, and a man’s seed spilled upon a woman’s thighs knows the pleasures of sword and sex that it might grow into, given the chance and a time alone in the warm darkness behind her sweetpocket.

So the creatures of old, with their thoughts of fire and their breath like earthquakes, begat smaller similars, fetches and avatars who could roam the earth with more active will, for they were not so tied to sea beds and mountain ranges. Still, these children of enormity were yet great by the measure of today, when we are reduced to field mice and arsinotheres and the cold, wriggling intelligence of the merely ship-sized squid which haunt the pelagic deeps. Their eyes were not the size of moons, but merely the width of duchies. Their appetites did not swallow continents, but only made meals of island paradises where lost revelation did once bloom among the orchids.

Of this generation only one survived the churning of the world into the face we know of it today – the Beast. For the Beast had wandered, leaving deep, quiet lakes in its footsteps, tearing new vales in the raw ridges of mountains thrown up like wounds from the bowels of the earth, dragging its tail in the sea, until it laid down to sleep on a new-baked plain of lava and hot mud. The warmth eased its aching bones, the rumbling of the world’s belly beneath its subcontinental ears was as a lullaby to an uneasy child, and so it rested with the long sleep of æons.