Thursday, October 22, 2009

One Word, One Sentence, One Paragraph At A Time: Baby Steps Toward That First Novel

It's almost NaNoWriMo time again and while I've never participated in this event I thought I'd comment on writing a novel. This is by no means a nut-and-bolt breakdown of writing something as monumental as a novel, but it should spur some motivation in anyone who reads this and wants to make the commitment it takes to undergo the journey to produce something as lengthy as a book. Here's how I do it, in a nutshell...

It's amazing how many people want to become writers, or at least, how many say they want to write a book. Most of these people never make the time to ever write to begin with, but that's a whole different topic I may address later. For those that do make the time and then sit down, trying to write, they soon become frustrated by the monumental task of writing a novel. I didn't have that problem when I wrote my first book, The Shadow People. I read Stephen King's book, On Writing, prior to embarking on the task of writing. (I seem to do everything the hard way first)

In his book, King says to commit to a regimen of 1,000 words every day (and that it is permissible to take one day off each week). He said that in a period of three months, one could have a novel. Granted, there is a lot of other factors that come into play: creativity, a good story idea, and fortitude, to name but a few. I already had an idea, however, and I did as he said. I sat down each day in a closed room and did a brain dump, putting my 1,000 words (or more, sometimes less) down on paper. Well, actually into the computer, but whatever, let's not split hairs here.

After three months had passed I had my first draft complete. I didn't sit and worry about how long the story should be, or suffering through a certain number of pages. I think if any of those concerns had carried much weight I might have been doomed before I started. I simply began strolling among the trees, comprised of words and scenes, until eventually, I came out on the other side and was able to turn and look back at the forest I had traveled through. It was a spectacular feeling!

Oh sure, there were days when I sat and tried to write those thousand words, but nothing wanted to come out. Those days were tough, but I stayed at my desk until I finished, and then there were days when I wrote two to five thousand words. Those days didn't come as often, however. For me, I simply sat down and looked at where I had left off. Once I was reacquinted with my place in the story, I watched as it unfolded in my head like recapping a movie or television show. As it played out, I sat by as a spectator, recording what I saw happening on the stage of my mind. With this technique, it's harder for the writer to pace the floor worrying about how many words he/she has written, or how many more they have to write to be finished for the day. Your job at this point is to simply watch happens and write what you see. The content will make itself: first as a word, then a sentence, and finally forming each paragraph at a time.

Writing is not an easy job. It's hard! Much harder than I first thought. Sitting down to write for one's self takes a lot of the difficulty out of it, but if you're writing for an audience and a living, there's so much more to worry about than how many words you can suffer through. If suffering through them is your primary concern, you shouldn't be writing anyway because then there's no joy in it. So, if you still want to write and you take it serious, just sit back and let your mind play and your fingers fly. Your story will eventually write itself. Just get it from your head to the paper. There's no one else that can transcribe that masterpiece but you, and the second draft is where you worry about fine-tuning it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stranger in a strange land: Crossing over the genre line

When I first started writing, I wrote only horror stories. Horror is my passion. I'm a horror junkie. Whether it be movies, television, or books, I prefer horror. I love all the old slasher films. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now I am a huge fan of the show Supernatural. I read mainly Stephen King for scares. Yes, I pigeon-holed myself as a horror writer because it's what I love to read, so naturally it's what I chose to write.

My best friend and writer, Mark, is quite the opposite. He is a sci-fi author. Which stands to reason since he is as passionate about science fiction and space as I am with the dark and my monsters. I do not want to be labeled as only a horror writer, however. When you stand back and look, you'll see that Stephen King, although called the King of Horror, does not write only horror stories. He has written science fiction (the first one to come to mind is a short story called The Jaunt), fantasy (the whole Dark Tower series) and other works of fiction, although I'm not sure quite how I would label them (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile).

Although I love horror and want to dethrone my idol, Stephen King, I don't want to simply be complacent in the horror genre. I want to spread my wings, flex my creative mind and reach out to other realms of writing. It's definitely a great way to excercise your creativity. I decided to try my hand at science fiction because fantasy and other genres, mystery, romance, etc. do not appeal to me. I will say, however, that they may appeal to me one day, just not right now. Science fiction never appealed to me before, with a couple of exceptions: Stephen King's The Jaunt and Ray Bradbury's awesome story, Mars Is Heaven. I have always loved that story because it broke the stereotypical mold I had of the genre being dominated by pasty nerds in glasses swooning over space stories such as Star Trek and Star Wars. (Note: I enjoy watching Star Trek and loved Star Wars as a child, but Star Wars has somehow lost its luster to me as an adult.) What appealed to me about Bradbury's story was how it did not take place in a space craft among the stars (granted, there is a space ship, but the setting is more like that of Earth). The twist ending was the thing I loved most. I am a huge fan of Twilight Zone-Rod Serling-ish endings. That's what turns my dials up to ten. Another thing that turned me off from the science fiction genre was the notion that the field has been too heavily mined, much like Vampire stories in the horror genre, there just wasn't much unexplored territory.

That last notion is somewhat of a misconception, in my opinion. Sure, the genre has been heavily mined but so has the horror genre, that's why a creative mind is so vitalas well as reading broadly. Stephen King once said that writing is like being ushered into a vast building with more doors than one can open in a lifetime, and as a writer, you're given leave to open as many as you like. It's definitely true with all writing, no matter the genre. I recently read a sci-fi story called Blood Child, which blew me away. Again, it did not take place aboard a space craft, which intrigued me because of my stereotypical view of the genre. It now ranks top in my mind, next Bradbury's story, sitting aloft that pedestal with Mars Is Heaven. I decided to try my hand at writing some sci-fi. I explored the farthest recesses of my mind for a good story angle. I came up with a black hole scenario (again, mined to death). I kicked it around, looking for some new spin on it, but no matter what I dreamed up, it seemed too cliche. After letting the idea ferment for about a week, something came to me. I had the perfect twist ending. I sat down and pounded the story out and began editing it. I had written my first science fiction piece! One that I am quite proud of.

Bitten with the bug, I decided to see if lightning would strike twice. I racked my brain for different scenarios, but my lack of science fiction exposure hindered me. After all, I do not read much science fiction, so I was niave about what had been overdone and what was on the fringes of the genre. For me, it was unmapped territory. I began reading science fiction stories to test the boundaries and get a feel for the style of some notable authors. Finally, another idea came to me. I wrote it down in my Ideas file for later. While I thought I was stuck for ideas days ago, another story emerged from the abyss, bubbling up like Texas-T for old Jedd Clampett. I watched a television show that mentioned The Lost Colony of Roanoke, a subject that has always intrigued me. I turned the mystery around in my mind and got a great idea for a science fiction yarn. A story that I'm currently editing. Since then, I've had some other ideas for sci-fi stories. I've even written my first poem!

My point is this: don't try to pigeon-hole yourself because other genres don't appeal to you. If you give them a try, reading several different stories by several different authors, you may find that you like some of the works in a particular genre and that can open up a new area for you to excercise your writing abilities. This is why I said earlier that while I don't like romance and mystery, it's not to say that I never will. To subscribe to that theory would make me closed minded, and close mindedness (to me, at least) is an author's poison. So spread your creative wings and fly!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Releasing your book into the wild: When is the best time to submit your work?

I've encountered this quite a bit lately and even wrestled with the question myself. I recently read on a writer's bulletin board a post that basically asked when one should finish a work and move on to the next WIP (work-in-progress for those that don't already know). A literary agent even addressed this question as well, so I decided to further the topic. As I've said, I wrestled with this conundrum myself, but luckily, I've managed to see past it. While I still haven't actually released my novel into the wild yet, I have gotten the inspiration to get it finished much quicker.

Here's my account: I began writing The Shadow People in 2005, before my horrible divorce. It took me 3 months to write the first draft. I set it aside while my life was turned upside down. I tried editing the hard copy in 2006, but felt it was too monumental of a task along with the ongoing divorce, so I quit after 80 pages. In 2007, after remarrying, I pulled out the manuscript and began thinking of how to edit the monstrous thing. I had a ream of pages before me and the mere sight of it took the wind out of my sails. Finally, I sat down with a legal pad and pen and read the whole thing through, creating an outline of revision notes on the pad. I thought it was horribly written and decided it needed a rewrite. I eventually rewrote it, although I don't remember how long it took to do so, but I think it was relatively quick. I put it aside again, to let it mellow. While it was tucked away, I began other novels, leaving them in various stages to work on other projects that felt more interesting. Finally, I stood back and looked at the mess of WIPs I had accumulated, realizing that if I kept on like this I would always have plenty of unfinished projects out there and nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, I kept reading agent blogs and news of debut authors selling their books to publishers. If I wanted to join these new authors' ranks, then I knew I had to get off my ass and quit procrastinating with my work. Like writing a first draft, I vowed to set some limits to accomplish the goal. I committed to editing a minimum of 10 pages each day. With 380 pages, it would take me just over a month. I made it through and it felt great! Now, I've decided to make one more pass, a 4th revision, but this one will be a lighter version since I've already completed the line-edit. I'll look at pacing, dialog that doesn't progress the story, etc. and clean all this up. When finished, I plan to distribute it to my first readers who've expressed an intrest in reading it to provide me with feedback.

The moral of my experience is this: writers are great at procrastinating! Whether they think of it that way or not, it's true. Maybe it's the trepidation we feel toward rejection. I could've continued telling myself that my work just wasn't good enough with each revision. Reading it over and over, feeling that I can do better than this. Of course, as writers, we should constantly be growing in our craft and this means that we will always look back at our older writing and see where we could improve it or express something better than we did. Even the famous authors have published books they can look back on, thinking, Wow, I could've done better than that! At least they're published! This is what finally lit the fire under my ass. I want to join the ranks of published novelists, so I decided to get the story written to the best of my current ability. If you sit on the manuscript, thinking you can always do it better, then you'll probably find yourself in the same detrimental cycle I was in. Eventually, you have to see if it has wings and can fly from the nest.