Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Let's have a 2014 like this little guy

I was kind of casting around to see what my intentions are for the new year. I mean, it's a great thing to have a brand new year to tackle. "Tackle" already implies a struggle, though, doesn't it? To conquer? Sounds like 2014 is going to be an enemy. "Deal with" make it a crisis.

I've decided to play with 2014. And the perfect thing for me is to visualise it like it's a pumpkin, and I'm a red panda. Like this little guy:

Red panda going nuts over a pumpkin.

That's how I want my 2014. I'll play like nobody's business.

Happy New Year, everybody. Don't forget to play. :)

Sunday, 29 December 2013

What my younger writing self has taught me

I spent the last two days re-reading and annotating a PDF copy of my first-ever German fantasy novel. It was co-written with a dear friend of mine, so you can really see that I've been pretty much a creative team-player from the get-go. I co-wrote the bulk of that novel in 2000, and it was published in 2001. Or thereabouts. Memory does get a bit hazy, so I'd have to dig through my livejournal to get to the posts.

There's a lot of very embarrassing mistakes around that book, so in the interest of appreciating how far I've come, I'm going to talk about that book a bit.

1) I didn't know back then that you don't "game" the review system. Quite a few reviews of the book are by friends. I didn't tell them what to write, but I do assume they wanted to help me and wrote nice stuff to help sell the book. These days, I wouldn't do that. I don't review friends without full disclosure. Back in the days, it seemed legit and okay - but in a way, our relationship with Amazon and reviewing was very much developing.

2) My first-ever review was a troll review and I survived it. Same book, and the first review of it was a nasty takedown written by my main characters (the troll had a sense of humor). These days, I know that "reviewers" who only have one 1-star review and are clearly trolling a book or author have very little credibility. Back then, it really hurt. By now, I know pretty much who did it. Someone who wanted to be published by never managed, and someone who was in a constant competition with me. The only thing that person could do was try to hurt me via my books. It's ancient history now, and didn't actually stop or impede or even slow me down. The best revenge is always to keep writing. The only thing that can stop me is my own head.

3) My "themes" are very very apparent even in this piece of juvenalia. Let's see, we have the murderous/destructive/controlling/tyrannical father who's quite definitely a threat to life and sanity of the main character. We have a very homoerotic student/teacher relationship, and a character with an ambivalent bisexuality; though he sleeps with women, he seems to bond mostly with men, and notices how attractive they are. We have the restrictive "system" subjugating the "hero" (the inquisition are essentially proto-Fascists). The character is very competent, but over/underestimates things, which comes back to bite him. He's being taught humility and humanity. The character is an idealist, and a twisted/wounded one. In some ways, there's a straight line running between him and Hagen of Unhinge. And again, it's about warriors. I always write about fighters/soldiers/warriors. And, yes, the villain/turncoat is most definitely in love with his teacher. Love/lust/possessiveness is his primary motivation. I thought I was very subtle when I wrote it that way, but it's screamingly obvious.

4) Learning the craft did me a world of good. I wrote this before I knew very much about the craft of writing, so all the newbie's mistake are there: show don't tell. Overexplaining. Over-writing. Hyperbole. I do think the book would be twice as good if I could kill about 5% of the text. Abused adjective and adverbs. Melodrama. We even have a character look at himself in the mirror to describe himself. Point-of-view is jumpy as hell. While it tries to be third person, it's really more omniscient with the narrator constantly chiming in. It's very distracting and the camera has moments where it's about as steady as in the beginning sequence of Saving Private Ryan.

5) The harsh editor is your friend. Yes, the book was edited - there was kind of a developmental edit and a line edit, but both didn't go nearly deep enough. An experienced editor should have seen the craft issues and might have taught us to spot and fix the craft-related problems that the book now suffers from. Looking back now, *I* could be the kind of editor and teach myself what went wrong here.

6) Publishing before you're ready is a mistake. Part of the attraction of writing this book was the pay cheque, I'm not lying. Those 3,000 EUR were a lot of money for me back then as a student, even split with my co-writer. I also felt, very strongly, that I could easily compete with the quality in the series (and I was right). However, just "writing it for the hell of it" is a poor reason - just a couple years later, I could have written it so much better. Part of me tries to be the indulgent parent and think "oh well, it reflects who I was at 25", but some other part reminds myself how old Goethe was when he wrote Faust. One part is proud I did it, another really believes I wasn't ready and it shouldn't have been published, or at least not without a very very strict, very good editor.

7) The plot actually works. Yes, it's a simple quest plus mystery, but the actual plot ticks along like clockwork. The characters are doing what they're supposed to do. The mystery adds up. The final battle is satisfying, stakes are high, the resolution is pretty dramatic and epic. The bulk of the novel's told at page 220. The mistake is that it has 60-70 more pages and a "second ending" that is less dramatic than the first ending.

8) Symbolism/metaphor really enhances story. There are some amazing lines in there, I was shocked. The whole book lives on the light/dark, cold/heat metaphorical field, and it really amplifies the story, heavy-handed as it is at times.

9) It's AAAAALIIIIVE! There's a raw power and life to it that carries through even though the craft itself is weak and it's not an amazing book. But it's a book that's still alive. It's not pretty with its drooping eyelids and uneven gait and hunchback, but it's breathing. It seems this young writer had some promise from the start - you can see unformed talent and I wish I could go back and coach myself to get better faster, because the material, the talent, the heart, are all there. They're just unformed and a bit ugly. I do think readers are seeking out that "life" in fiction more than the "pretty words", but personally for me, they have to come together to fully satisfy me.

10) It's still satisfying. Part of the driving force behind the book was the attempt to immortalise a few characters. My "gamemaster" when I played the mage character, for example, really didn't utilise his backstory well, so writing the book around the mage and his brother and his lover kinda allowed me to use the backstory myself and in a more satisfying way. It was maybe a little bit a "fuck you" to those people who hated my character. By writing the book, I made them "canon" in the game world, whereas *their* characters didn't become part of the greater whole. I think sometimes revenge is a dish best served in paperback. Also, "properly" using my character has always been a driving force behind my books. Kendras started as a gaming character too, and the game wasn't what I expected, so I took his backstory and turned it all into Scorpion. I'm no longer very good at giving any GM control over my characters. It should have been a clue from the start that I'm a writer and no longer a gamer.

So what did I do to the old biddy of a book? I cleaned up some scanning/OCR issues (not many, the text was pretty clean) and re-read the whole thing from start to ending, commenting in the PDF as I went along. I deleted some sentences that weakened the scene, took out some CAPITAL LETTERS and replaced them with italics. Set foreign language in italics.

After re-reading it, I'm ambivalent about the book. It has issues. Today, I would write it differently. The plot is pretty good, the characters decent. I'd really love to unleash everything I've learnt in the last 14-15 years on that set-up and really ride it this time.

It's also not a great use of my time. The book as-is is part of a larger world with fans who were paying stupid prices for the "collectors items" that some of the paperbacks have become. I believe in making old stuff accessible. I don't believe in paying 30+ EUR for a paperback. So in a way, the re-release and re-print can't be too far from the original, so the co-writer and myself have decided that we'll edit it, but do it very gently.

None of the changes I'm suggesting will hurt the integrity of the book. I'm not adding anything. I'm just taking some weak phrases out and did a basic proofing run. I'll also add an author's note that explains where I'm standing now, creatively, and how I worked on the book. I have to accept that it's my first book and has issues and will have issues forever. My inner perfectionist is screaming at this, but it's OK. There's much, much worse out there, and I'll look at it like at a historical document of sorts.

I've now sent the annotated file to the co-author so she can make her edits and then we'll move forward with this.

I have two more PDFs to work through. The good news is - they are "later", so I should be a better writer then.

Above all, I've learned how far I've come since 2000. I have to let go and accept I'm not perfect. 13-14 years from now, I'll be cringing at what I'm now considering my best writing. A writer is a river. Everything flows and changes and we're never the same person as the one who wrote yesterday's story. I'm hoping to embrace that a bit more in the future.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Seasonal update

It's a fine tradition in this house to be working on books over Xmas. I finished my first print novel in Germany over Christmas 2000. I don't remember what else I did in that year, but I remember sitting quite contently and editing/tweaking that book. It seemed like a very good use of "empty" time.

This year, I have a pile of edits on my desk. Developmental edits on one book and line edits on another. I've also sent back edits on a third novel before that and a fourth novel is currently with the editor. Two of those are co-written, but the ones hogging my desktop right now are both solos, which means I can't consult with a co-writer on decisions and that self-consciousness and anxiety kicks in. What if it's not good?

Well. I took the liberty to spend the last two days playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (Christmas present from the Dude), which has a ludicrous story if you actually follow politics and military history, but some pixel eye candy, pretty well-written levels and oh the shiny. Amped up on trigger-happiness, I then switched to an old favourite: Splinter Cell: Conviction, which made me re-learn the bloody controller, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. Of course, my DNA as a gamer is to go for maximum damage, so Sam Fisher never killed so many people. In a sneaky way. (That's why I like Gears of War and Call of Duty - the comical levels of ultraviolence.)

It does make me want to write some more military stuff, so that should be great for that series of paranormal novels I'm hatching.

I made my first batch of unassisted gingerbread. I'm also currently in the process of helping a friend buy a house. I've been through the process before, and personal finance is a hobby of mine. I just enjoy financial planning.

Then I've heard back from a job I applied for and they want to see me in early January. They're also seeing my boss (yes, we're sharing job specs, considering the ship feels a lot like it's going down).

So, lots of stuff going on. I'm not really writing, though I hope the Muse will be a bit more cooperative. I've been putting words down for Suckerpunch, but it's not nearly in the quantities that I'll need.

Then I've been in contract negotiations with Ulisses-Spiele for the re-issue of three of my old German novels. They have the rights for the 150-odd book series "DSA", Germany's largest fantasy RPG system. I'd estimate about 95% of all German speculative fiction writers got their break with DSA, which always had a decidedly fannish culture and hence much lower barriers to entry, to borrow a term.

That means re-reading the old manuscripts, making changes where necessary and accepting that I wasn't a great stylist 13 years ago. (I'm still no great stylist, mind, but these days I get edited a lot more harshly.) Mostly, I have to fight the instinct to butcher and rewrite them. Essentially, I can't enforce my current tastes on something so old. Any editing done on this needs to be gentle.

I'm also considering adding a sex scene to one of them - something the editor is very much in favour of. There are two male couples in there, and one's mostly hinted at. I think that slave should get a reward...

I briefly considered attending the Leipzig Book Fair in March, but then I saw that the whole city is booked out for the weekend and decided against it. While friends claim I'm "still a known quantity" due to the DSA novels, I don't have anything to offer in German. That said, I might co-write something with a German friend to keep my hand in. That said, I will travel to Marburg in late March to visit friends.

Christmas (or "Chrimbo" as some people call it) didn't make much of an impact. Not seeing family, not entertaining, not cooking huge amounts of food. It's a week off and I'm getting a couple books done. Cooking-wise, we selected a few favourites and are preparing those. I admire all the authors who're putting out Christmas codas, but I'm not getting into the groove and right now I'm not writing in any meaningful way. When I'm trapped in the "editing" side of my brain, writing isn't easy. I think the brain will be clearer when I'm done with these two books and have them out of the way.

Plans for 2014 so far include:

- Getting a new real-life job
- Getting a new bathroom installed
- Finishing Suckerpunch
- Writing two historical novels
- Writing more Market Garden
- Launching/planning a new paranormal series

Anyway. Hope you guys are having a good Festive Season and a Happy New Year. :)

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The things I watched

I think there's a correlation between what an author reads and what s/he writes or thinks about. I also think that correlation can have a negative impact. Rather than be original, we regurgitate what we've read. Rather than take people and emotions from real life, we create a copy of a copy of  a copy until no truth or life remains. It's maybe not fair, but it's one of the reasons why I try to read as widely as I can. Recently, I've been reading almost no m/m - but a lot of gay nonfiction, "mainstream literary" books, generic non-fiction, how-to books, creative writing books, lots of stuff on the internet - research for books I will never have the time to write/. Just filling my head up with ideas and words outside my own ecosystem. No idea where it'll take me - it's all strange chemical elements that, crammed together like this, might spark something. There might be a chain reaction I cannot stop, and gods know what it'll create. It's fine. I call this my "recharging" process.

Unable to write, I've watched a LOT of British TV - usually in the shape of boxed sets of BBC series. One of the first ones was Luther, which was effing amazing, because of all the moral quandaries. Edge-of-the-seat stuff. Intelligent, well-written, amazingly acted (Idris Elba!), and even the minor characters were excellent. Loved it. Deeply disturbing at times. Loved, loved it.

Then was Sapphire & Steel, which is a late-1970s/early-1980s series and spectacularly good, considering it had basically zero budget. It has that kinda cheap-but-joyful Dr Who vibe, where people act in really ramshackle, low-budget conditions, but OMG did I love the world-building and the really intelligent plot twists. It's involved, you can't miss five minutes, and despite the infuriating format of, IDK, 25-minute episodes, of which 5 or so form a "case", I loved it. Because of the "cheap and cheerful" conditions, the writing is carried by excellent dialogue - it's very "stagey" most of the time. Above all - nothing gets explained. Zip. Zilch. The author just trusts the audience to comer along. Nobody stops to explain the bigger picture, which keeps the audience guessing. We wolfed this stuff down in a couple days.

And we've just started Lexx: The Dark Zone, which a friend of mine tried to get me to watch, but it was way, way too weird for me at the time and it didn't appear to make any sense. Now, on the second attempt, it's still really weird, but I'm appreciating all the black comedy much more. Also, I've run so many games with the score that hearing the music ten years later or so is weird, but has a lot of good memories tied into it. It's wildly irreverent and weird and "punk" in some ways, and there's nudge-nudge, wink-wink. And a lot of very visceral body-horror "ick" moments, so we won't be having our dinner again while watching the next episode.

Anyway, we'll see what those things stir up, but mostly, it's good fun and keeps the grey cells engaged while I'm hoping that the words return in force at some point. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Checking in (and Rainbow Awards)

First of all, congratulations to all the winners and runners-up of the Rainbow Awards. Elisa Rolle did a great job pulling it all together and raising a respectable amount of money for rainbow charities.

Lots of my friends did really well, and I think LA Witt essentially ended up owning most of the speculative fiction (including historical) categories. From the books I've read (as a reader, I was a judge only in YA and f/f this year), it's been a very, very strong field. Well done, everybody.

Since most of the books I wwrote during the eligibility period were co-written, I'm co-winner with LA Witt in the Best LGBT Erotica category with If It Flies/If It Fornicates. That pleases me because responses to those were really mixed, so it's a "no way in hell, REALLY?" kind of surprise.

We also have a couple of runners-up: Capture & Surrender was a runner-up in the Best LGBT Erotic Romance category, and Unhinge the Universe scored in the Best Gay Historical Romance category.

Bottom line: Market Garden did extremely well, and so did the co-written stuff.

No news on the job front in real life, which does pre-occupy my brain quite a bit. My company is still getting sold, and the sale to two other buyers has fallen through, but there's apparently somebody else interested. Aledgedly, there will be some kind of development this week. Or maybe not. Essentially, we've been in a holding pattern for about six months now, so I'm applying for stuff that suits me to plot my escape. I'm ... not good with holding patterns.

In positive news, I've done quite a bit of research and additional brainstorming on Suckerpunch, even though I haven't really added any more words to a bit I started a couple weeks ago. Ever since co-writing Payoff, the third in the Tristan/Jared story, I haven't really written at all. I have, however, banged my head a lot against our cop novel, which is a 97k beast so far and requires some minor tweaking. I don't seem to have a lot of brain juice for editing or writing at the moment, so it's been slow and painful, and slow, and slow, and slow. Maybe I just need a holiday - or know whether I'll have a job next month. I guess either of those will do. Mostly, I'm keeping my head down and am grateful when I make any kind of progress in anything. It's the usual kind of mindset, the whole "will I ever write again" - despite empirical proof that I've always written again after such a slump and usually better than before. Writers are moody creatures. Ignore me. It'll get better eventually - it always does, and my brain is being an idjit. I'm just haunted by worries/concerns over Scorpion, I guess, and whether I screwed it all up. The phase between writing and getting stuff published is terrifying - I'd forgotten just how bad it is.

However, being free from the relentless "I can't, I have to write" pressure means I get to spend more time with friends and my partner, so that's definitely a good thing. I do hope we'll get snow soon. Today was the first time that I had to break out my big green woollen coat AND the fleece, so I'm hopeful. Also, obviously, trains got cancelled, and the whole city is shrouded in semi-frozen, low-hanging fog.

I'm amusing myself a little with an idea for a paranormal series that won't sell worth a damn. Maybe I'll make that my new ambition - only breed bunnies that I know won't sell. I'll reframe it as "my little eccentricities" rather than "my secondary career". There's Suckerpunch first, though. The characters are talking to me some of the time at least, and I have the general plot arch, and I like the idea. That, and edits, should quite happily carry me over into the next year.