Sunday, 27 October 2013

Wrapping Scorpion3

I've been working hard on Scorpion3 (currently titled "A Taste for Poison", though I'm now less sold on the title than I was) - and I hit 40k.

I've also overrun three deadlines and am likely causing no end of grief.

That said, I can feel the ending now. At least one twist isn't happening because the characters are pretty smart and avoided getting trapped in a siege, so that's . . . at least 5k of words that won't have to be written because the characters were smarter than the outline suggested. I'd have loved to write a "proper" siege, and I will, eventually, but it won't be the Siege of Gorge Point. Which is a bit of a shame, but I can't cram it in against the characters' better judgement.

Scorpion3 right now looks like it'll be over fairly soon. "Soon" meaning about 20k left to write. Maybe 15k, depending on how efficient they are in dealing with the last two enemies. So it's very likely it'll be quite a bit shorter than the others (which are both in the 70-80k range). I really don't want to cram in more scenes and plots or slow the whole thing down. I think the pacing is good, and I hate the snail pace of most epic fantasy.

Above all, I'm quite curious whether they'll manage to negotiate themselves some peace and how Kendras will respond to finding out who he is. Generally, he's grown a whole lot. He's now a mature, responsible leader, and much better at communicating. He's also very much in love.


I'll be overrunning deadline number 4, but likely not by very much now that I've found the groove again and am working hard to retain it. Every writing day I've had, I've surpassed my daily writing goal, which is a good sign. I've been posting a couple slices of it on Tumblr (obviously pre-edits).

I'll be sad to let the characters go. I'm also really ready to move on. I do want to do NaNoWriMo with a short novella (~30k) on Widow, and maybe a joint project with LA Witt. In December, then, I'll be working on Counterpunch2, and will hopefully wrap that book by end-December, so I can start fresh in January with my historical novel that's been languishing.

So, yeah, 2013 is basically done and planned. All I have to do is to put the words in the right place, and then a spot of editing. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

What you should stop/start doing

Building a third life (trance, rage, and healing)

I've always been interested in "alternative" therapies. At various stages in my life, I've played with the idea to become a massage therapist, a homeopath, and a coach. I've done the coaching, obviously, and still do it at times for writers, if I can find the time. I guess it's an INFJ thing - according to my Meyer-Briggs personality type, I'm a "Counselor" and I like fixing people. It's also pretty good at "general people insight", which, I think, informs my fiction and means that, as a reader, I read for character far more than plot. Humans fascinate me.

The "people insight" hasn't stopped me from "buying into" a number of sociopaths, psychopaths and/or narcissists (of whom I've met three in my life, where I got to study their "burnt-earth" strategy very much up close), but it allows me to read patterns of behaviour both in myself and in others. And I get much better at recognizing sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissists (or rather, people who I think are high on those spectra) before they hurt me and/or my friends. I'm certainly better at dealing with energy vampires and other people who try to feed on me in one way or another. I'm even starting to get an idea why they get predatory in the first place.

Now, it's kinda a truism that only fucked-up people feel drawn to fix other people, because in healing others, we heal ourselves. The "wounded healer" is a very powerful archetype at play here, as it draws me to heal the very thing that I've either overcome or am still working on. There's also a whole bevvy of implications about sympathetic healing (mirror neurons) and other stuff--but I know that few things unblock and lift me up like a "padawan" who overcomes a block or wraps up a book. Projection, maybe, or some deeper, energetic process. According to some models, the student is the teacher.

In any case, for the last two years or so, I've involved myself somewhat in the "alternative" scene, attending courses and lectures, some of which were mind-blowing. I had a phase like that as a teenager, too. I even worked on a tarot hotline and helped a few people there, though that was a very draining experience. These days, I could help the difficult cases, but back then, I was unequipped to deal with some of the stuff people gave me, so I stopped and did other work, even though I was (am) pretty good. I also studied archetypes and psychology (Jungian, mostly) and, of course mythic structures (Campbell), which both very heavily inform my writing (though I'm sometimes surprised just where and how they show up).

So, in a way, all the "mythic" stuff I've been doing, I've done pretty much since I can remember, so 30+ years, but it's only recently coming together in a unifying model I can apply to the world. I still have quite a bit of studying to do, but the path is getting clearer. You see, writing is a highly complex, highly spiritual, psychological and energetic process - all creation is. I've likened it several times already to the shamanic journey, and I stand by that. The more I understand, the clearer it becomes. I think there are solutions for artists who get stuck somewhere along the line, and I'm digging for those. Artists are my "tribe", as are trans* people, who have different issues and challenges. Both have the big struggle about authenticity, trauma and anxiety. There's a primal wound at the core of all of us. In much of my writing, I stare at that wound and prod it, trying to fix it. I'm getting closer to fixing it, too. Or at least bandage it properly so it can heal.

I think it might make sense to study some things to bring all my small splinters of insight together, so over the next few years, I'm planning to learn hypnotherapy (I've enrolled for end-November), NLP (Grinder's approach, Bandler seems more mechanistic), Reiki, sports massage (from May) and acupuncture (from 2015). All of those feel like places I should go and they seem complementary, trying to achieve roughly the same thing but using different models or paradigms. I've already acquired a couple levels of ENLP, Progressive TFT (I'm taught by Kevin Laye, who built it), and the idea is to become a professional change worker and help people fix themselves - which I'm enjoying although my toolbox is still fairly small and I'm mostly focusing now on getting more equipment so I can fix more stuff and can apply a paradigm that works on the "client".

So I'm looking at switching careers eventually and practice all of those, plus writing. Mostly, because I think there's much bigger need for that than for corporate editing, and I think I might be happier in that space. Money isn't that much of a consideration - though it'll be nice to make a few bucks to pay for the courses. I might even be able to achieve all of that over the next 5-7 years.

From that position, whether I stay at my current place or take the other job if it's offered (I've moved forward into the second round of interviews and expect to get an invite to the second round this week - scrap that, I fully expect to be offered the job) doesn't actually matter. In the medium term, I'm going somewhere totally different. It's a weird place; freelancing always is, I guess. It's a space populated with a lot of unscrupulous people and downright crooks.

On the other hand, I've seen the stuff actually work and make a meaningful difference. It's working on me. I had one of my infamous rages at GRL -- something happened that threw me off entirely and I went into the berserk place where I'm perfectly capable of being a physical danger to people. I've inherited the rage from both sides of the family, but mostly from my father, a mean, violent alcoholic.

Normally, nothing can break me out of a rage. Nothing makes a lick of difference. Not "walking it off", not "breathing", not "calm down, you!". I just close down. Horns lowered, ready to gore. I have a "rage" maybe every two years, so they are reasonably rare.

This one, I studied and actually examined the structure of it. It's a place that's surprisingly cold. I can't be reached from the outside. Trying to hold me back only fires it (I call them Berserkergang for a reason). It's a high energy place, though, and a bit of a rush. Holding the thought in my head to beat somebody to a pulp with a chair, for example, feels like a totally rational, even necessary, response to whatever the person did who triggered me. It's an enjoyable thought. Everything around me becomes a potential weapon. It's a huge shift in how I perceive the world and people. And if that sounds familiar, that's because I've used the experience to fuel my characters. Several of them would nod if they could read this. They have it too, and deal with it in their way.

In short, it's a pretty frightening place and the closest I come to insanity. While I enjoy it on some primal level, it scares me on another and I don't want to do it. It's not the very clear, very beautiful place I went to when I was practicing martial arts or fencing. There's nothing playful or cooperative about it (none of Aikido's "firm, but gentle" approach). As much as I enjoy the dark rush (I assume it's just adrenaline, but a LOT of it) I can stop myself, but only if I remove myself from the scene and stay away for a long time until I've found a way to burn it off in some way. Exercise can help.

Let's say, at GRL that would have meant to lock myself away at a point in time when that really wasn't an option. So I used everything I had--ENLP, trance work, and lots, and lots of PTFT. I managed to downshift myself from murderous rage to almost asleep in less than twenty minutes, and it left me balanced for the rest of the day, and hopefully being nice and gracious to my readers and other people for hours and hours. None of that acidic sense of forced restraint. I just switched it off and removed it.

Now, that's a huge change. A huge shift, actually, kicking me out of it without so much suppression and more draining/purging of that dark, spiky energy (which wasn't mine in the first place). It's the first time that I resolved the rage rather than a) let it out or b) remove myself. Instead, I changed it and had a good time afterwards. So, yeah, it works for me. Trancing it out was actually really good fun.

Another big construction site was my sugar addiction, which my teacher resolved with thirty seconds of PTFT. I've been "clean" for 6 weeks now and have lost a solid five kilos because I don't eat sweet stuff anymore. I don't want it, I don't crave it, my guilty "I must have it" changed into "why would I want to eat/drink that?" I don't over-eat anymore (apart from two pizzas at GRL). I can switch that urge off entirely and increase my overall energy level at will, without sugar or coffee. It's a level of emotional freedom that opens up totally new possibilities and demolished some of my negative habits that kept me overweight.

Funnily enough, having access to those emotional switches did have an impact on my productivity. The obsessive "must write, must write" thing is gone, so I'm less productive. On the other hand, I'm working on managing my personal blocks much better, so I think in the long run, it'll normalise. I think the hypnotherapy course I'm doing at the end of November might give me the missing piece. The teacher posits that all reading is done in a state of trance (the whole "I fell into that book and felt it all!" now makes sense, doesn't it?). We get tranced by TV, plays, cinema, books.

Now, I asked him if writing and hitting the flow is trancing, too. He confirmed that. (Which makes sense, because I do my best, most effortless writing without the brain. So I achieve trance in writing.) I'm doing the course mostly to be able to induce myself for the purpose of writing, to see if I can make the experience for my readers better, and to help other writers to achieve trance. I'm also a trance junkie. I effing love it. It's my preferred state. Being able to go there at will and putting other people there sounds amazing. And it's a cool place, too, to affect positive change in people. (Random side note: I spent half the flight to Atlanta tranced out, thanks to my guided meditations on my iPod. Gods know what the stewardesses made of my half-asleep, possibly drooling, blissed-out state.)

So, yeah, the journey is fun. I'm certainly learning a lot about myself, and everything I learn as a direct impact on my writing. And if you ever meet me in person, I'll be happy to do a consultation. :) 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

GRL 2013

After the whole disaster of  imposing categories such as "preferred" and "featured" and "supporting" author, I wasn't keen on attending another GRL. I loved Albuquerque, though I spent most of it in a jetlagged daze - but I did meet many wonderful authors and Lori and I became fast friends there. (My gods, it's only been a year?)

For the record, I strongly resent the idea that any of the authors in the genre are "better" or "more necessary" to such an event. I may look like a solid mid-lister/small-time celebrity on the outside, but I just imagine what I'd have felt like as a "new" author in the genre, being relegated to the sidelines. I tend to hold grudges for years, so being treated like that once would likely have meant eternal resentment and maybe even that I'd never again have shown up. Nobody likes to be told they aren't important. (And no, I wasn't on the "preferred list", either, and would have insisted to be taken off it had I been one of the "Chosen Ones".)

Small gripes like this aside, a convention like GRL lives from the people involved. Personally, I chose not to take part in any of the events or parties - mostly because I'm not suited to loud and alcoholic environments, and I really wanted to spend my time either one-on-one or in a small group. I also did some minor busybody work (shopping, getting coffee), but mostly, I was just hanging out and talking to people.

Which is exactly what I like in conventions - having the time to connect with people I hadn't known or hadn't known well. This year, I also did quite a bit of work with a number of people. I've recently been certified as a progressive TFT practitioner, so people could watch me do consultations and tap various parts of "clients'" bodies. And it was very much necessary - large groups of people and especially authors have a way to stress people out, and many, if not all, authors suffer from anxieties (which pTFT is really good at resolving, so I did a lot of that). Few things are more gratifying than seeing a friend have a full-blown panic attack and treat them for 15 minutes, and see them smiling and joking with a group of people an hour later. It's nothing short of magical.

I spent a lot of time with LA Witt (obviously), and met so many more people - reviewers, readers and authors. "My" readers impressed the hell out of me - knowing who I write for - how smart they are, and how critical, and how accomplished - is humbling and has a way to focus me on my job. Knowing somebody like Sharon or Lin read my stuff, it's even more important for me to not compromise on the quality.

I've also met so many authors in the flesh whom I ended up really liking - from "just a name" to "OMG, that author's awesome!" a dozen, or two dozen, time. We went out to Poor Calvin's with Cherie Noel, EM Lynley, Thursday Euklid and Clancy Nacht, for example, and they were a riot. (If you ever go there, try the lobster wontons; they were some of the best food I've ever eaten. And I'm a saint for having shared them with the rest of the table.) So my TBR pile just gained another 20 titles or so.

The hotel did have some serious issues (dirty carpets, woefully unprepared, if friendly, staff, laughable gift shop, extremely mediocre restaurant food, and a gym that's actively dangerous, also a seasonally closed pool - and many complained about moldy rooms and no access to the balcony), so I'm hoping next year's will be better. The decor was really weird - it looked like it was built in the '60s and then upgraded in the mid-'80s. The furnishings were seriously tired - and then they charged for EVERYthing. Alcohol was very, very expensive. ($10-12 for a small alcoholic drink - I stuck to water and unsweetened iced tea for the whole stay.) I can't imagine that anybody who's stayed there will be back.

All this sounds quite negative, but nothing's further from the truth. If you have so many quality conversations/interactions with people, dealing with a sub-standard hotel really goes to the sidelines. I could happily do two of those a year. It was great meeting authors and readers and being able to help some people. If I can afford Chicago next year - which depends on book sales and whether I'll still have a job in 3-6 months' time - and if I can slip in in the five minutes that it's sold out, I should be there.

(Also, I'm glad I did get a chance to see the manta rays and whale sharks in the Atlanta Aquarium. Watching them for half an hour has chilled me right out.)

Friday, 11 October 2013

Characters only a parent could love

Back in the days when I was still a review junkie (it's getting better, I'm definitely recovering), I did look quite closely even at the negative reviews (minus those written by trolls), based on the old saying that you can learn something from everything. In the case of negative reviews, that is that you can't please everybody and some people won't get what you tried to do, and others have waited all their lives for that book. Usually, they talk about the same book.

One of the internal standards some readers seem to be measuring characters against is what I call the "loveability scale", based on the reader's ability and desire to fall in love with the characters. I think it was Sarah Frantz who told me that the hero in (hetero) romance is vastly more important as "dream mate" for the reader than the heroine - I might be over-simplifying, but it made sense to me. Therefore, for the (usually) female reader, m/m offers two characters to fall in love with. Which is great. Twice the emotional investment.

So statements like "I LOVED THAT CHARACTER!" and "URGH, I CANNOT LOVE A CHEATER!" make perfect sense in the context of a review, even though the writer knows why he/she did such a thing and has a much deeper insight into the emotional jungles of that character.

Now, I keep reading in "how-to" books on romance how the characters have to be "loveable". Makes sense. Clearly, considering reviews, that is hugely important to romance readers.

For all other genres, this goal seems to be mostly expressed as "the reader has to identify with the character". (Cue the success/appeal of juvenile wish-fulfillment of most epic sword and sorcery fantasy and most Marvel/DC comics - and I don't mean "juvenile" in a derogatory sense.) I would argue that both aims are really the same - I can't completely hate somebody I know very well. Or rather, once I understand a character, I empathise. Once I empathise, I really, really struggle to hate. I might still get angry or upset with them, but hate is kind of out.

Where I'm from (genre fiction), characters are seen as the identification foil of a reader who puts her/himself into the book (aka the identification hypothesis = "readers want to identify with the main character/s").

This whole identification thing is severely over-rated in my view.

When we go back to Aristotle (who kinda started it all), the kick that an audience gets out of watching a play, comes from releasing emotional energy ("catharsis") by seeing people do stuff and act out strong emotions. The audience goes home afterwards, emotionally cleansed and maybe wiser. You'd go to the theatre for some basic "soul hygiene". (I'm simplifying again.)

Aristotle doesn't posit at all that there's identification going on. The audience member doesn't BECOME Oedipus sleeping with his mother and killing his father. I assume most Greeks would shudder at the thought and find the idea offensive to be forced to BE that person, even if just temporarily.

But apparently that soul hygiene part of the entertainment even works when we don't BECOME the person on the stage.

So what is still going on is watching, learning and an emotional component that leads to a discharge of energy.

Berthold Brecht hated the whole idea of "identification" so much he created a theatre theory that basically dis-allowed the audience any kind of identification ("dialectic theatre" - where he aims to pair education, critical thinking and political act and keeps messing with the play to get his message across. The story is just a vehicle--almost an excuse to get an audience into the theatre).

Personally, I hated Brecht's plays (a constant source of friction with my German teacher who was a Brecht groupie). My question was always, "Why should I care? So this guy seems to think he knows it all and then rams it down my throat without even managing or bothering to entertain me?" Actually, my final exam in school was an analysis why I don't believe that Brecht's theory works at all.

Audiences WANT the emotion.

But do they want the identification? Or is it just empathy, that weird, miraculous ability of humans (and quite a few other species) to tune into others?

This might be a matter of gradients, but those questions have some serious implications for writers.

If readers want identification, we have to give them characters that they want to be.

If readers want to tune into the character, we just have to bring them alive (so there's a corresponding somebody who can be tuned into).

Maybe there are two types of readers with two different needs - or the same needs, just with different priorities.

Correspondingly, maybe there are different approaches/structures at work in the author too. There might be those who "are" their characters (so they write about themselves, with only facts changed, but emotional structures left intact). Some of these characters might turn out to be Mary Sues, but most often they aren't. These are quasi-biographical writers.

There might be those who "become" their characters during the writing, but switch back out of that mindset when they are done. (That's my process, though echoes of Kendras, for example, linger in my real life while I'm writing him, and I hear Silvio whenever I access the part of my mind where he lives, and sometimes when I don't.) I call these types the "method actors". I see it as accessing parts of myself and unlived possibilities. Sometimes, I'm just pushing my own limits - for the hell of it.

There might be writers to whom writing is a more or less emotionally neutral undertaking that's driven primarily by the rational mind (and that can be fun, too). Their characters obey and do what's necessary to tell the story. I've heard these authors called "puppeteers", though that has quite a negative ring to it. As long as the story works for the readers and the writing process works for the author, there's nothing wrong with it.

And then there are other types, but I think these three are fairy common.

Having said that, all three methods (and all those I've left out) can live in the same writer.

Now, the secret of love - or rather, of making a character loveable.

Honestly, no clue. I can make characters come alive, but I can't set out to make them loveable. All the writing books on romance stress how the hero has to be perfect; money, breeding, looks, "manly virtues" (aka, alpha male traits), sexual power, magnetism, billionnaire bank account. And the reason why he's not a cliche is - he has one fatal flaw (like Superman has Kryptonite issues). He might be a vampire. He might have a Dark Past.

I've seen that "fatal flaw" worked to death in m/m, such as characters have been raped and recover from abuse (very common), often including healing with the magic cock. On the other end of the spectrum, m/m is rife with characters who appear to consist of nothing but flaws, and have maybe one strength (such as beauty or smarts). They might be so weak, neurotic or phobic or incompetent that this reader wonders a) how on earth have they lived this long, and b) why does the other character fall in love with a gibbering trainwreck of a man. (Well, the allure of the healing/redemption theme is strong to the reader, probably stronger than in real life.)

Sometimes, the fatal flaw ... isn't. I mean, seriously, Kryptonite is so rare the flaw is basically meaningless. Now, if Superman had issues with concrete or stone, now that's a proper issue. It's like telling somebody in a job interview your big flaw is "perfectionism" (yep, done it, got the job, but most recruiters roll their eyes at the cliche.) So, the guy's perfect, but he has a small scar in his face that makes him look like a rogue pirat. Yeah. Crippling, crippling flaw. The horror, the horror.

Never mind.

And then there are characters who aren't made to tick the boxes (hot, rich, alpha, plus flaw). They might even be less "made" and just "step into being", and often, they have issues, but most of all, they are people. Still story people (so somewhat larger than life/better/smarter/wittier/fiercer than real-life people), but people first. To my mind, they are more balanced, too. Most of my characters that "happened" that way have huge issues (Vadim, Silvio) and flaws. They cope with their flaws in a variety of ways, and sometimes aren't even aware of these flaws. Or are in denial about them. Generally speaking, I know stuff about them and even though they might look unsuitable to be romance heroes (because they are racists, or rapists, or unrepentant criminals who rack up a huge bodycount before lunch), I'm interested to see how they respond to falling in love. What does it mean for a self-sufficient badass to fall in love?

To me, seeing somebody fall in love and go through the absolute terror of love (being scared, being insecure, being nervous, having that sick feeling in your stomach) is enough to trigger the "I care about you" reflex. Everybody gets challenged and changed by love. Some people, I think, get redeemed through love. Some people might be bad, but they are still capable of love and being somebody's beloved. To that end, love can be the fatal flaw, the thing that unhinges a character's equilibrium forever and, much like a big fucking asteroid, change their orbit forever. Love can be the challenge to the ego. Sex can be/mean the same as death. Certainly ego death, as they transcend themselves.

It's that kind of story I want to tell, although I appreciate that a huge amount of readers are not following me onto the ledge there. I like to stare into the abyss. I don't really do wish-fulfillment. I can't. I don't care.

I've recently had a discussion with a very smart person who told me that "all romance is wish-fullfillment", and that, by my very structure and DNA as a writer, I'm not actually part of the genre. (As a note, she didn't say that in any nasty way or with the intent to exclude me. It was more an academic observation of story archetypes and structures.)

I think she has a point. I also think that I'm not accepting anybody's definition of a genre in such narrow terms, even if that is the "majority opinion", to borrow a term from my semesters studying law. Just because it's the dominant creed doesn't invalidate the minority, and the days are over when you had to tick all the boxes just the right way to get published (and therefore read) at all. Personally, I believe romance is older, deeper, and wiser than mainstream category romances, which have come to "set the genre's standards/rules".

Yeah, well, I think we should challenge all dogma when it comes to stories, and what you can and cannot do. Or as an NLP trainer I know likes to say, "I reject your limiting beliefs."

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Ivan Drago is the hero of his own story

Now, I've always loved Ivan Drago, so I was delighted when I stumbled across this today:

The Misunderstood Ivan Drago.

It's whimsical, possibly offensive, pretty clever and reminds me of one of the big things I like to remember when writing villains: Every villain is the hero of his/her own story. Most definitely everybody in Scorpion/Memory of Scorpions is the "hero". 

Monday, 7 October 2013

"But nobody speaks that way"

I'm currently reading a book with pretty awful dialogue. (No, it's not the ones I have filed as "currently reading" on Goodreads - none of the 20-30 books, there, anyway.)

What keeps echoing through my head is "Nobody speaks that way."

But, actually, I'm wrong. People do speak that way. We exchange platitudes, spend half the allotted dialogue space on things like "Hi, how are you - yes, great - great seeing you, bye", with actual content almost zero. (One of the reasons why I'm at times been seen to be abrasive or standoffish - I don't do well with "noise".) And often, authors are told to "listen to people" for their dialogue.

Personally, I think almost nothing is duller than real-life smalltalk. If you don't believe me, record 10 minutes of real-life conversation with a smartphone and transcribe it. If you've done that even once, you'll be forever wary of any "write how people talk" rule and the excuse of "But people TALK THAT WAY!" dies a whimpering death. Real-life speech on the page is barely coherent and makes very little sense. Hell, few of us even manage to speak in complete sentences. It's a miracle this species of apes has ever built one civilisation, let alone several.

Now, most of you have heard all that before. But in my book, dialogue an artificial rendering of speech. The trick is to make it prettier, shinier and more authentic than the real thing. It's like that presentation plate in restaurants that looks amazing and better than the real food, but everything on it is wax. It represents the thing, but isn't the thing. That's the big artifice of writing. We're on the level of Platonic ideals - we're writing about people who aren't people, feelings that rarely exist like that in real life. We write dialogue that doesn't because we're not as witty or fast or clever. We build plots that make more sense than real life. And yet we have to build authentic stuff that hits the authentic buttons in an actual physical brain. The mind boggles.

We aren't gods, we're clockworkers.

I still know very little about dialogue. My characters just talk and they are better at it than I am, but I know a couple things that guide me in my own writing.

1) Dialogue drives plot. Twists happen. Information is revealed that has a massive impact on what's happening next. ("Luke, I am your father!") In real life, that's fairly rare--certainly much rarer than in fiction.

2) Dialogue reveals character. What we say is who we are on the page. Action is character, and speaking and what and how to speak is action. That's word choice, sentence length, education level. It reveals whether we're cautious, reckless, crazy, well-considered by nature. What we're feeling in the situation. What's important to us--it reveals our virtues and priorities.

3) Dialogue is conflict. One of my writing teachers encouraged me to think of any dialogue as a conflict between two (or more) people. The main question to be asked when looking at a piece of dialogue is "who's winning?" - sometimes, a dialogue ends at an impasse, but the thing is, characters don't just talk to talk. They want to achieve something. Knowing what that is is really important and keeps readers engaged. We don't care about the happy smalltalk of strangers on the train. We do care (positive or negatively) when they have a heated discussion or even a fight. Who's winning? Oftenenough, both win or lose, or can't resolve matters and need to escalate.

4) Dialogue is what's left unsaid. To me, that is the single most important thing about dialogue. I once had an editor who wanted me to explain everything and spell everything out on the page. Nothing could be left unsaid. It had all to be out there on the page and endlessly explained and clarified and shoved down my readers' throats wholesale.

While fiction like that exists and sells a million copies, it's entirely against everything I believe about "good" fiction. Personally, I can't read such books (I tried). Worse, I can't enjoy them. I want to engage that brain and think and work a bit when I read. I want a writer to trust my intelligence. After all, I trust her/his skill to entertain me. To me, interpretation is half the fun in reading, if not more. I prefer to keep the important stuff unsaid, and still put it in--between the lines. They aren't accidents, it's in my mind the advanced skill level to say things without saying them. My favourite editor tells me to cut those explanations, which is always a risk. People might not get it.

But that's when I resolved I can't write for everybody, and "my" readers (few as they are in the grand scheme of things) are okay with putting some work in. So, screw that over-explaining bullshit. You can pry the subtext from my cold, dead . . . keyboard.

Just yesterday I wrote a scene for Scorpion3 where Kendras, stoic, strong Kendras, actually says something out loud that's been simmering in the background since book 1. There's almost 150,000 words between the set-up and that particular reveal. It's a small reveal about how he considers one of his dead comrades, but the very fact that Kendras NEVER speaks about that kind of stuff made me almost break into tears. I got him then, I really got him and the pain.

It wouldn't have affected me nearly as much as if it had been spelled out in book 1. And I'm running the risk that nobody will spot the passage or even remember what it's built on, but I had full-body goosebumbs writing it.

Ah, the small, solitary joys of the novellist. In some ways, 80% of what I'm doing in my solo work is insider jokes I tell myself for my own entertainment. But that's 100% okay with me.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Process & the Eternal Amateur

For me personally, and for most writers I know with any kind of deeper familiarity, nothing is as fascinating as that mystery wrapped in an enigma we call "The Process". I think that's why many of us are "how-to" book junkies and we read all the interviews to crack the magic code of how to write, write faster, write better, sell, sell more.

I've coached and taught writers for a long, long time (10+ years), and I have a large toolbox of tips and tricks, partially cribbed from famous writers, friends, or from observing my own Process.

The fascination with The Process is plugged right into many of our vital systems. It's not just money, it's identity. The moment we define ourselves as "WRITERS", the ability to produce and sell becomes part of our DNA and turns from a possibility to create to a requirement to create. In short, we go from "can" to "must".

This is, of course, often fueled by the very real need to make money (whether to pay bills or have something to show to our partners who meanwhile do the cooking and shopping and often win the majority of the bread or for us to win bragging rights at parties - people don't respect writers until they've published. Everybody writes - few publish).

Hacking "The Process" and optimising it therefore can become a career-long obsession. I know it's been that for me. Still is. No day passes where I don't look down at my navel and think about what it all means.

I know writers who flail about The Process so much that they don't get any writing done. They're like birds who were flying just fine and then suddenly seem to realise how complex flying really is and then start to look like albatrosses that are not assisted by a friendly updraft at the right time.

I know writers who have their Process down to a science - including reliable wordcount on 99% of their days. Writers who know exactly how many weeks a novel will take, or can plan the production of a a novella down to the day.

My Process has evolved over about 26 years (holy crap, I've been at this for a long time, you'd think I know what the hell I'm doing).

1) Literary diary-keeping. I used to write as a teenager, and the plot was ... eh, it didn't really happen. Characters did stuff, but none of it had coherence and nothing really made sense. The characters themselves were thinly-disguised rip-offs of whatever character I was reading or obsessing about. To my credit, though, I skipped the "author insert" stage of juvenile fiction, at least as far as I can remember. My own identity was already so fraught at that stage that I essentially masked and compartmentalised from the start. The writing itself was driven by the knowledge that nobody cared and there would be no publication.

2) Writing for an audience of 1-3. I moved on, roughly when I turned 16ish, to writing about characters and I was beginning to share stuff with my best friends. Gods bless'em, but they cared and wanted to know what happened next. Plot was still thin on the ground, but I created some kick-ass characters. I also became more original overall. (This is when Silvio was born.) I still didn't have much plot - when I was written out, I just killed the characters off (though Silvio refused to die). I did manage to type up a short story and sell it, but it was written without much awareness of anything. I wrote it for the money, though.

3) Awareness of craft. See, Germany "in my day" didn't have much creative writing literature or infrastructure. It seems Germany hopes that writers spring, fully-formed, from the brow of Zeus. But I did learn some structural things in German lit class in school. I even applied it. One friend kept badgering me that my stories didn't have "arches" or "nothing really happened", so I was very aware that there was something missing that people were looking for. I joined creative writing groups. The one at university really helped - the lecturer looked at style and structure. And, combing back through some of my juvenalia, there were some seeds of some decent stories in there. I wrote more regularly, with the idea to finish. I sold a novella, which I'd written from my guts, very much. An idea that just ripped itself free. The money was enough to pay my rent for three months. Clearly, I was destined for greatness.

4) Learning and teaching the craft. I bought every book on creative writing I could afford and get my hands on. I also borrowed some. I wrote and published novels with Random House/Heyne Germany. Friends and I were teaching writers how to apply that. (Still very little infrastructure.) I worshiped at the altar of Sol Stein's "On Writing" (still a book I'd recommend).

5) Crisis of confidence. I emigrated. All my precious German-focused knowledge was gone and the fear of being "unable to compete with natives" petrified me. This intersected with the realization that I might be half as talented as my literary agents told me I was, but I couldn't write the things that "sell". I had no job after university, and basically sank into depression. I spent most of my creative energy on roleplaying games, online and off.

6) "Just playin'". Despite all the fears, I still wrote a little bit. I finished a novel that had bested me at every turn because the main character refused to play ball. The four books before that one were all outlined and planned and co-written, so they had natural structure. That last book, though, didn't. I laboured under it for a good 18 months. No outline or system would work. I'd quite literally "lost the plot". Considering I made only a month's salary from the book, that was an unacceptably long time to write anything. I'm still mildly scared to look at that book again, though I do think it might be the best thing I've done in German. Or maybe my agony shines through. After that I swore never to write without an outline again. Well. Then I got involved with "Special Forces", which was just playing on the page, riding kinks, writing sex, and keeping myself entertained. That led right to writing m/m and discovering people pay money for that ("There's a market?!") and yes, I could compete with the natives in their own language.

7) "Trying to go pro." So over time, I went back to outlining and running a fairly tight ship. The first couple years were haphazard, partly because of stressful day jobs. Partly because I was playing. Partly because I was looking for my themes and trying to learn the genre, or at least learn what works and what doesn't. I had a decent output, but not much success. Though the harder I worked, the deeper I dug, the harder I edited, things were slowly turning around.

8) "It's a . . . it's a . . .!" After quite a few hits and misses in terms of publishers, I wanted to run my own ship. Which I did. My Process got pretty tight. I used some of my strengths (playing well with others, aka co-writing) to balance out my weaknesses (slowness, fear, among others). I started really looking at and analysing my numbers. I talked to many, many other authors, many much more successful that I am/was. Immersed myself in the whole business side. Learned it all from the ground up. Marketing. I spent a lot of time reading about this "indie movement". Mind, I'd turned my back on "trad/legacy publishing" because of the small payout, the pressure, the slowness, and the crazed ideas of "what you can/can't write" (WWII was totally out) or what "you should write/what sells". I discovered there's a life in indie. There's even money in it, though I was still writing things that would never go blockbuster.

9) "Trying to go pro, pt 2". Armed with actual numbers and data, I tightened things up even more, imposing a draconian schedule on myself and the muse. It was "do-or-die". My day job was sucking much more from me than I was willing to give. I figured if I could work 80-hour weeks (or actually, more) for two years, I'd surely make enough money to quit my day job and be a self-funding author with enough cash to not have to lose my house or take handouts from my partner. I outlined, sometimes I pantsed. It was "Wordcount, wordcount ueber Alles". Above all, I weeded out books that "wouldn't sell". But the Muse is funny. The less a story was likely to sell, the more I WANTED to write it. I ended up working too hard. When I finally did have a bestseller on Amazon ("Capture and Surrender", with LA Witt), I realised it's not enough money and never will be, unless I have 5-6 sustained bestsellers a year, which means 5-6 contemporary novels, and a complete focus on contemporaries. Also, I clawed back "bad work" and re-took control of good work in the wrong hands (be it for small profit, small sales numbers or no marketing support).

(Meanwhile, the Muse sat in a corner, weeping over the euthanised non-selling novels that  were moved to "maybe one day" on my schedule.) Seeing the numbers that I needed, and seeing they simply weren't happening, and then looking at a short manuscript that the editor clearly hated (though to her credit, she didn't say anything), and my urge to drop-kick it into the next bin, and then damn near breaking into tears when a very short novel came back with 1,500 editing comments, and hitting block after block, until my whole world consisted of blocks, and spending every minute thinking "I should be writing, this is a waste of time", I realised what I was doing is not sustainable. By that point, I'd sacrificed everything else to that idea to be a "pro writer". Everything else suffered. Above all, my joy, but also my will to live.

Because that's the thing. The Process is what we do. But without the Joy, it's nothing. It's an idjit spinning an empty wheel. It might run smoothly, but it means nothing. Smoke and fury. Commercial tales told by a burnout.

Money-wise, it's a nice addition to my salary, but I'm going to take a big hit on it as I'm changing direction.

10) "Just playin', pt 2". Actually, I always revert to my "just playin'" mode when The Process no longer works for me, so this is more like "Just playin', pt 1,0000". I've said often to newbie writers that every book teaches you how to write it. A good 22 years after my first sale (as accidental and improbable as it was), I think that's truer than ever. Some books want outlines. I'm better with just a vague idea and a couple "cornerstone scenes", though I can get mired like I got with that 18-month novel. I maybe should have killed it or broken away to write something else that I could actually master. Generally, though, it's true. The way is the fucking way. The map is not the territory. All that.

I wonder if part of this is the whole "art versus genre" discussion, though I don't think so. I believe in Donald Maass's assertion that "genre is dead". Aka, the best books marry literary flair with genre's tricks and reader engagement. That's what I'd love to write. According to every literary agent I've ever spoken to, that puts me in "sales hell". But I think "creativity hell" is actually worse.

Genre-busting and envelope-pushing is my natural state. I don't do well with "you must" and "you can't", or when people try to impose their arbitrary rules on me. And I think The Process is exactly that - a constant flow of adjustments based on listening to your inner truth and that of the book (the both of them are actually the same).

I'm an introvert. And that's where I'm going: Inside.

It's time for me to go into the dark forest and wrestle monsters there. I know what they are called, and we all know names have power. There's "Market", the beast that's preyed on my weirdest and most wonderful little ideas hopping around me until barely one was left alive. There's "Doubt", which would rather have a clean house than a full screen. His brother, "Fear of Success", with his mocking laughter that kills me dead at the keyboard whenever I go wild. There's "Professionalism", which is trying to choke me with its tentacles, and its sister, "Branding" - voices endlessly following wherever I go, constantly correcting how I talk, think, or respond to anything and letting me have it when I make a mistake. There's "Always On", egging me into stuff that kills my productivity and making me act like I'm a five-person customer service team and my days aren't just 36 hrs long, but 48. All without pay, of course.

Their monstrous king is probably "Fear". Fear of everything. Of failing. Of succeeding. Of being heard. Of not being heard. Of being stuck in my day job at a mediocre company with apathetic staff forever. Of being financially insecure. Of not being respected. Of being respected too much. Of being important. Of being completely without significance. Of writing art. Of writing drivel. Of having talent. Of having no talent at all.

In essence, I have to return to that state where I was writing just for me, write the book first that twitches most, regardless of any market for it. It means accepting I'll have a day job for the rest of my life, and making the most of it. It means a lower wordcount. Less books published. Definitely less money (which is where the day job comes in which I must see as a necessity rather than a nuisance - which will take some effort).

I think there's much truth in Dean Wesley Smith's blog post about "Having Fun" (also read "Book as Event"). I was having fun, definitely co-writing. It was my own stuff that suffered.

I can't look at my books and murder them because nobody's going to read them. I'll treat sales as happy accidents from now on and not something I'm aiming for. I won't even look at the numbers anymore. I'm not going to look at reviews. As Dean suggests in that blog post, I'm going to shut all that stuff down and really only concentrate on the fun of writing. Because it is fun. It's the shit in my head that twists it all and turns it acidic in my throat. It my problem, my defect. My obsession with goals I can't hit without losing something that's actually a lot more precious to me than that goal could ever be.

So that's the freedom I'm granting myself in 2014. I've worked so hard the last 2-4 years. I think I deserve just writing to write for a year. In essence, I'll push hard to write the two novels I've promised by year-end, and then all bets are off. No commitments.

For readers, very little will change, strangely enough, at least at first. This is all Process thought, not Result. Besides, I've written a LOT of stuff recently - which is enough to keep 2014's schedule looking pretty decent. 2015 is likely going to be bleak/sparse, but I'm not thinking that far yet. Chances are, I'll fall in love with something and it'll come out then or now or eventually. I'm taking all deadline pressure off. There won't be any definitives for a while. No promises. I'm going to be an Eternal Amateur again and take all that freedom back.

I'm pretty sure I'll end up writing better stories for it. And slay a monster or five.