What Visuals Help You With Your Writing?

I came across this article on The Millions this morning, just about a week after I printed out blowups of two photos from the web and taped them to the wall next to my desk. When a colleague asked Edan Lepucki if she had any visuals that helped her in understanding the novel she was working on, it inspired her to ask several other writers what they kept nearby as they wrote.

To Be Eaten in Case of Emergency: Inspiration and Comfort for Writers

Family photos, art, random objects, sometimes just a note that says “Work.” It can relate to a specific work-in-progress or serve as a reminder of who you are as a writer, what inspired you to write in the first place, or…

My visuals are fairly specific — the faces of two men, one of whom died in 1947, and one who will undoubtedly die sometime within the next few years.

Victor Serge was a Russian revolutionary and anarchist, who was also a novelist. I’ve only read one of his books so far, Men in Prison, written from his own experiences in prison. It’s a strange book, both in structure and viewpoint, but fascinating and moving. It is, in its own way, a protest novel, and I can see from this one example, why he is still influential as a political thinker, even if he’s largely unknown in the United States. He died in exile, in Mexico, at the age of 57

The other man lives on death row in a southern state. We have become friends over the last year and a half, not an easy process, given the desire of the state to isolate death row prisoners, and deny them even what they’re legally entitled to, such as mail. My friend is also a radical, a fighter who willingly suffers the retaliations that are the price of fighting for prisoners’ rights — not just his own, but the rights of the others who share his hell.

He is partly responsible for the book I’m writing about the death penalty, though there are many other influences. Most of all, when I look at his picture, I’m constantly reminded of the difference in the choices available to us. When I’m overwhelmed with the human tragedies of our “justice” system, I can turn my back, temporarily, on the research and the effort to express what an appalling institution the death penalty is. He lives with it every day, inescapably surrounded by dehumanization and death.

Both men make me feel like a coward when I look at their pictures and realize that I’ve frittered away another day trying to avoid the pain of writing about what they experienced at first hand.

Emotional Ups and Downs? You’re Not Alone

If you don’t mind a bit of bad language — okay, lots of bad language — Chuck Wendig often has amazing insights into writing. His latest blog post starts with an infographic, so if you want to avoid an overdose of the bad language, you can take a look and stop right there. But it’s worth going on. Especially if you’ve ever slammed your head against the wall — literally or figuratively — more than once, while writing a book.

The Emotional Milestones of Writing A Novel: A Handy Guide!

As Wendig says, the milestones are different for everyone, but I can relate to most of them. The one that really gets me, every time, is at 66% — “You know what, just f__k it.” Because no matter how great the idea is and how well it seems to be going, there will always be that point when I’m tempted to delete the whole thing and write it off as something I dreamed up in a delusional state.

And let’s not forget the milestone at 33%, when the great idea is beginning to look not so great and another story idea pops up and tries to tempt me away because “This one will be so much better.” Which leads, inexorably, to that horrible 66%.

I’m not sure whether it’s frustrating or inspiring that Wendig goes through the same emotional cycle with every book and has to remind himself of that fact. At least I know I’m not alone. But it would be nice if there was someone around at critical emotional points to remind me that the exact same thing happened with the last book, so quit pissing around and get back to work.

Maybe I’ll print out the graphic and pin it up on the wall in front of the computer. Or make it my desktop image.

KBoards Free For All

Another interesting discussion is going on at KBoards’ Writers’ Cafe. The original post is somewhat waspish, but it’s generated a lively bunch of thoughts about whether you should or shouldn’t listen to advice from other writers. One quoted bit managed to hit a lot of buttons: “Write what you love to read, and your readers will love it as well.  Remember when you are taking advice from Internet writers forums, that most of us who actually do this for a living don’t hang out on Internet writers forums.”

The discussion rambles from marketing to selecting genres, to  “Who do you write for?”

Here: If the ‘conventional’ writing advice and wisdom is correct…

 

Staggering From Pillar to Post

I spent most of the last month trying out a variety of sites for both income and promotion. Most of that time was a waste, but I didn’t have high hopes for any of it, so — no surprise. I tried, and left: Tsu, Amazon’s WriteOn, and CGPGallery.

Tsu was heavily touted as a money-earning version of Facebook, with hordes of people jumping on in the belief that it was going to be a new source of easy money. I joined in the hope that it might bring some attention to my writing. After about two weeks, I left for the same reason that I’m not a member of any other social network. To be seen, you have to interact constantly, not my cup of tea. On Tsu, you also have to put up with a feed that includes friends of friends of friends. The longer I was on the site, the more time I spent scrolling through my feed just to find one interesting item.

Amazon’s WriteOn is a great idea for anyone who doesn’t mind spending their time critiquing other people’s work. Potentially, posting your writing there might bring you to the attention of one of Amazon’s staff, but that’s a long shot. Again, you have to interact in order to be seen. As with every other site, it’s tit for tat. I barely have the energy to keep up with my own writing; the hunt for anything with even a slight potential for benefitting by critiques took most of that energy. The majority of writers are youngsters doing poorly conceived and badly written variations on popular series and themes.

Not much needs to be said about CGPGallery, which is just one more badly designed and managed clone of every revenue-sharing site that’s ever been on the web. Its pay rate has brought floods of people looking for the fast buck, including refugees from Bubblews.

And that brings us to Bubblews, where I earned a few hundred dollars over the nine months of my membership. I crossed my fingers when I joined, thinking that it looked too good to be true. It was. The management abruptly reneged on hundreds of thousands of dollars in back payments, slashed more recent payments that were still pending, and cut the pay rate down drastically. The rats fled the sinking ship  in droves, despite more promises of great things in the pipeline. And today, with the notice that my last payment had cleared, and my last posts safely deleted, I became one of those rats.

So what am I doing now? Just after Christmas, I joined Wikinut, another revenue-sharing site. (She never learns, does she?) The pay rate is very low, but the site is well-managed (comparatively), and is set up for long-term earning. If all I wanted was the money, I wouldn’t bother, but there are topics I want to write about with some depth, without the struggle of trying to build a readership for yet another blog.

Other than that, I’m pondering whether to serialize an in-progress novella on my website. I started to do that on WriteOn, but deleted all my work there before I left. Serializing worked very well on my Live Journal blog, but I don’t really maintain it any more, and I want to build up the website as quickly as possible.

2015 is off to a somewhat rocky start, but at least the decks are cleared.

The Pile-of-Crap First Draft

One of the most deadly criticisms of National Novel Writing Month (among others) is that it encourages people to write crap. The naysayers who think they’re doing a good thing by warning naive would-be writers away from the yearly event choose to ignore that it gives permission to write crap if the fear of doing just that is what’s been holding you back. It doesn’t insist on crap.

And when a well-known, admired, and prize-winning novelist reveals that his most famous book was written in a month — by hand — it kind of takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who insists you can’t write a good novel in a month. The first draft of The Remains of the Day was, in some ways, the pile of crap everyone fears.

“I wrote free-hand, not caring about the style or if something I wrote in the afternoon contradicted something I’d established in the story that morning. The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing. Awful sentences, hideous dialogue, scenes that went nowhere – I let them remain and ploughed on.”

There’s a big difference, of course, between an experienced writer and someone who’s about to attempt their very first major piece of fiction. Ishiguro can write a crap first draft because he knows how to write a novel, and knows that it will go through many drafts. The novice can’t help writing a crap first draft, but it’s only the first step to something that might become many times better.

Ishiguro tells us why he spent an entire month of crash writing, and how he did it. It’s also a fascinating look into some unusual sources of inspiration that he drew on.

Kazuo Ishiguro: how I wrote The Remains of the Day in four weeks

Progress on Nearly all Fronts

Wrestling with Gift of the Ancien is keeping me busy enough, you’d think I’d stick with just that one project. But no, that would make my life too easy. So I’m writing what will be my first ever permafree piece on Amazon. I promised I’d never give away any of my work (except on my website) so that promise is broken. It’s a short story in the Hand Slaves universe, so that’s sort of a promise broken. But my feelings about that world continue to be ambivalent, and a short story isn’t really going to take that much of my time, after all.

The work on Ancien is taking it in all sorts of directions that I never planned. And now, it will include a short story written by one of the characters, but never finished. One of the pieces that I originally intended to be an interlude will also be an internal short story, but that one is finished. I love the interludes and hated the idea of abandoning them, but they just didn’t work as interludes because all they did was interrupt the main story. I think this will work out. It had better work out.

What else? I’m starting to post chunks of A Well-Educated Boy on Amazon’s WriteOn. Becoming a member there was, very frankly, intended to be primarily for the sake of promotion. But it’s becoming more than that. The site has some very good writers, and some with the potential to become good or excellent with some gentle critiquing. Even I, overwhelmingly superior and awesome writer that I am (that’s a joke), can always use an objective eye.

Well-Educated Boy is somewhere around halfway to completion — very long short story? very short novella? — and posting online, with the threat of reaching the last chunk and having nothing more to add, is very motivating. All I have to do is figure out the rest of the plot.

In the little  nooks and crannies of daily life, I squeeze in short posts for Bubblews and even find time to eat.

Have I mentioned that a free short story is up on my website? It is. Refuge: a depressing tale about a small group of people cast out of their community, and a winter that starts too early.

 

I’m an Author!

I have a website, at long last. And in something like record time, for a major project. Does that make me, officially, an Author? That seems to work for some writers, but I’m quite happy just being a Writer. The site doesn’t claim either one, but it does have its own domain.

You’re invited to meander over and see what’s on offer. There are pages for each of my published works, complete with short excerpts, a look at the hand slaves world, and the first of what I hope will be many free short stories. I’ll be blogging, posting short science fiction reviews, and ranting about science fiction, in all its glorious and not so glorious permutations. There will also be teasers about stories in development.

http://csmcclellan.com/

When Readers Misinterpret Your Book

I hadn’t planned to write a post for several more days, but an interesting thread came up on Kboards and reminded me of something I discovered yesterday on Goodreads. The thread asked, “How do you deal with being misunderstood, or your work being misinterpreted?” This is something that every writer probably experiences sooner or later, even if you’re an obscure unknown. If you’re a critically esteemed writer, there will be articles and even whole books dissecting your work and interpreting it in a multitude of ways.

It’s inevitable that some reader somewhere along the line will seriously misinterpret what you’ve written. If it happens in a review and it can can turn potential readers away, you can legitimately be upset. But there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. Public rebuttals don’t work very well, as many misguided authors have learned, to their regret.

What made the thread so pertinent for me was that I receive a lovely review of Hidden Boundaries on Goodreads. What caught my eye on the book page was something I don’t normally pay much attention to: the genres that readers have chosen for a book. It was startling (to say the least) to realize that three readers had put it in erotica and BDSM. The novel is primarily about the loss of freedom in a slave society, and it does evolve into a rather unusual romance. But there is absolutely no sex in it, much less any hint of BDSM.

Which makes me think that those readers are so dominated by their preconceptions about slavefic that they imagined something that wasn’t there. In other words, they interpreted the book in terms of the genre they were expecting, rather than what it actually was. Their choices are particularly ironic since I wrote it as a reaction against slavefic being almost entirely devoted to sexual encounters. Those three readers help confirm the notion that readers will always bring their own biases and preconceptions to what they read.

The only lesson here is that you can’t control how your readers see your book, and there’s no point getting upset about it.

 

Transitions

You may have noticed that this blog looks a bit different. Changing the theme and trimming it down are part of a larger change in my overall approach to blogging and being in the public eye. Changing the name puts it more in line with its intent, which long ago stopped being about the progress of my writing.

Promotion of my own published work will be taking place on the website that’s now in development. I’ll be blogging there, also, but it will be mostly about books that I find interesting, and about various aspects of science fiction and fantasy. I’ll be posting free short reads there (motivation to actually finish some stories), and may eventually invite readers to sign up for an email newsletter.

Now that I have my own header up, I’m not too happy about the way the theme handled it, so I’ll be looking for another, equally simple theme. Besides all that grey space being extremely ugly, I don’t like themes that force readers to do a lot of scrolling before they get to any text. So expect more changes.

 

Ready, Set, Go!

I finished NaNoWriMo on the 25th, with 52,600 words, and have started the complicated job of revising and editing. Since all those words have to be integrated with the original novel, there will be (already has been) much murdering of my darlings. Whole chapters have already disappeared, and other chapters are being combined in preparation for more blood-letting.

I was surprised that I could come up with an additional 50,000 words and even though I never want to do another NaNo this way, it was worth it. The challenge of writing brand new material and trying not to create new plot holes while filling in old ones was exciting, even while it was exhausting and frustrating. One of the side benefits of working on something that was written five years ago was seeing how much I’ve learned since then.

I hope to have all the pieces of the puzzle where they belong by the end of the month, and ready for more detailed editing. Also in the works is a major rewrite of New Serfdom, the novel I wrote in 2012; the completion of several partly written stories; and two nonfiction books.

Because all that isn’t enough to keep me busy (I still have time to eat and sleep!) I’m working on a proper author’s website that I hope will be ready for the public sometime in January. And I joined Kindle Write On. For anyone who’s familiar with Wattpad, it’s something like that site. More about that in a future post.

Once More Into the Breach

Or how to tell lies in public. It wasn’t meant to be a lie when I said I was done with NaNo for this year. I didn’t add to my word count for four days, even though I did do a little writing. I really felt that there were no more big chunks of text to be added, just little dribs and drabs that wouldn’t amount to much.

Maybe I just needed to chill for a while, because whatever was blocking my brain let go, and the ideas started flowing again. I really didn’t think it was possible, so today, at 41,600 words and the rest of the evening, plus seven more days ahead of me, it still seems pretty amazing. I think that’s why writers keep plodding along even when nothing seems to be happening. Because, eventually, something does happen, and it’s always an unexpected something. For me, that’s just as thrilling as winning the lottery would be for someone else.

Relevant to this is a question someone asked on the NaNo forum the other day. Whether it’s acceptable to write a story within a story. The simple answer is yes. When I began writing Gift of the Ancien (originally Gift of Blood) it was with the intention of including three or four “interludes,” which were essentially short stories about events that might have taken place before the events of the novel.

When I started planning for NaNo, I decided to place one of those at the end, as an epilogue, and integrate the rest in various ways. One was expanded and became the first chapter. Another became a short story written by one of the characters. The very last thing I would have expected was for another of those internal stories to show up, but that’s what happened.

They aren’t just random stories. They’re all fictional imaginings of what Ancien life might have been like at different times in history. The story that has become the epilogue is about the plague that started it all. Another is about an Ancien family’s tragedy in Renaissance Italy. The new one, which was inspired by a discussion between two of the novel’s characters, takes place in 19th century America, when a few Ancien families wanted to escape the wars of Europe. All these stories are a natural outcome of the novel and expand it in a way that info dumps or backstories could do, but only in a clumsy sort of way.

I still don’t know if there’s enough for me to reach 50,000 words, but what I got out of quitting for those four days makes that almost unimportant.

NaNo is Over – For Me

I finished up yesterday (the 17th), with 35,000 words. Now it’s on to the heavy lifting, the slicing and dicing that I hope will turn Gift of the Ancien into a successful novel. When I look over the chapters and snippets that I’ve written since November 1, I wonder why the novel I see now was invisible to me when I created it several years ago.

But having gone through the long process of thinking about it, reimagining it, and understanding my characters better, I realize that’s why good novels can take years to write. And that says a lot about the current generation of writers who are boasting about how many novels a year they are writing, and how many copies they’re selling.

It’s possible to write a decent novel in just a few weeks, one that keeps readers engaged, that doesn’t trip you up with poor grammar, and that might even have a style of its own. But I seriously question whether you can expect that novel to still be around in a couple of years. A visit to any well-stocked used-book store will impress you with the endless shelves of novels you’ve never heard of, by writers you’ve never heard of.

I know I’m a decent writer. I hope to become an excellent writer. I don’t expect to write anything that will become a classic, something that’s still being read generations from now. But it’s a worthy goal to strive for, so I don’t regret that it’s been five years since I wrote the first draft of Gift of the Ancien. It was a good idea then. It’s a better idea now.