Pre-Production Report: The next WIP

I’m currently in “pre-production” on a new-ish project, by which I mean I am engaged in working the kinks out of an idea I’ve been kicking around for some time.

In movies, pre-production is when art, financing, casting, etc. are done.  The script is finished, then broken down into scenes, and storyboards.  Location scouting, costuming, props, all are being worked on.

In writing a novel, pre-production is very similar to film work.  I’ve finalized the cast of characters (with, of course, room for new supporting roles as needed), and I’m working out the plot–or, rather, the plots, because this book has a few of them.

In The Widening Gyre, there are some subplots, but there’s really just the one throughline–as a first-person work, I could only show what Tajen himself was there to see.

In this new story, I’ve got four POV characters, and each one has their own plotline, beginning in vastly different parts of the Boundless Empire, each on their own path.  Now, before the end of the book, some of them will come together, and by the end, they’ll all be pretty interconnected, even if the characters never meet.  But that’s still four major plots, and every POV has at least one minor plotline.  All in all, this story has ten distinct story arcs.

This is even harder than TWG was, because in TWG, if I adjusted something, it might cascade to other things in the novel I had to adjust, but in this book, if I change one plot, it might have ripples that affect every other arc.  For example, I removed a meeting from one character’s plot–I decided having her go off on her own against orders, and have to deal with the ramifications of being something of an “outlaw,” was more interesting that just having her fight a mindless bureaucracy to get things done.   But removing that meeting meant a subplot that affected other plots had to change.  And that subplot’s change led to even more changes, even for storylines that at that point in the story are only tangentially related to the first arc.

It’s teaching me a lot about how to juggle plotlines, and each change forces me to think through elements of the story.  As a result, things that had been part of the story from the beginning are now falling away, discarded because they don’t make as much sense as they once did, but they’re being replaced by better elements that will make the story stronger and much more interesting.

I’ve also been adjusting certain character attributes, figuring out what makes each character tick–what their goals are, their individual psychologies, and even their appearances.  It’s a story far removed from Earth, again, and not part of present-day Earth cultures, but also informed by them.  So it’s very much a multi-ethnic cast, even if they don’t exactly correspond to modern-day ethnicities, and many of the characters are multi-racial.  I’m still working on names, because some of them are a little too modern for my tastes, but so far the cast includes Shin Kincaid, Alua Tan, Jen Tan, Ian Khan, Lavraj “Raj” Patel, Emily Kennedy, and Marian Neves.

Right now I’m mostly focussed on figuring out who the characters are under their skin.  Once that’s done, I’ll focus on their individual plotlines in earnest, and then once those are all nailed down, I’ll break them into scenes, then interweave the scenes so they work as a coherent, cohesive whole.  I figure I’ll be adjusting the whole thing as I go, until it’s time to start work on the composition–and even then I’ll be adjusting until the story is finished.

Writing, man.  It’s hard.

 

What it’s Really Like, Part 3: The Cover

Yesterday, I received an email from my editor.

Yes, I still love to say “my editor.”

Anyway, I thought it was going to be my edits, but no–it was cover design ideas. He presented me with two, told me his preference, and asked for mine.

I’ve thought about this moment a lot, even before I made the sale, and I’ve always known it would be a stressful thing.  For one thing, I’d been thinking about possible designs for a while.  Most of my ideas were, I knew, unobtainable. Further, while some publishers will ask the author what they think, the final decision is the publisher’s.  More than one author has hated their book cover.  I was prepared to join them, but hoping for better.

So it was with some trepidation that I clicked on the files. And then I smiled, because both designs were fantastic.

I really loved the artwork on one of them, but it doesn’t quite fit this book’s feel or themes as well as it might.  But the other design is thematically perfect, and dynamic.  It’s eye-catching and has a great tagline.

I’m happy. The design may change, in small or even large ways, between now and finalization.  But for now?  I’m totally pleased.

 

The Importance of Silence and Downtime

I’m not silly enough to assume this is true of all writers, but it’s certainly true of me: I need silence.

Not true silence, the absence of noise, though that is also beneficial.  What I really need is a sort of mental silence–time in which I don’t have to be thinking too hard about other things, like work, or whether my child is screaming for good or bad reasons, or if I remembered to feed her.

The reason I need that time is so my brain can work through story issues.  I can sit, in a hammock, let’s say, staring at the trees above me, blinking but doing nothing else–and in my brain, ideas are being sifted through, sometimes consciously, but sometimes in the “background” of my mind while I’m just processing sensory input consciously.  It’s a weird and hard to describe process.  So here’s an example:

Saturday night, my daughter and I stayed in a motel in Placerville, about a half-hour drive from my home, because we were going out to watch the Perseid meteor shower and I didn’t want to have to drive all the way home from our star-watching spot at the Ice House Observation Plateau to Sacramento at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.  When we woke up Sunday, we got dressed, packed up, and went home, where an hour later, I realized I’d left my pillow–a non-standard, kinda expensive pillow that is literally the best pillow I’ve ever had–in the motel room.

Figuring the gas to get there and back again was less than the cost of buying a new pillow, I went back for it.  I went alone, which was useful.  As I drove, I started asking myself some tough questions I’ve been having a hard time with about The Remembrance War around some of the events in book 2 and some stuff I’m building toward in book 3.

Namely, I had two major questions:  First, instead of getting into a protracted street fight in book 2, why don’t the Zhen simply blast the rebels into the dirt from orbit?   Second, why don’t they shoot Tajen dead when he begins [REDACTED]*?  And, bonus question, why ARE [REDACTED] getting involved with the whole mess in book 3?

As I drove, with nothing to do but let the music on my crappy car radio be white noise while I thought (and steered), I found all three answers.  So I committed them to memory, and then spent some time refining the concepts and pre-composing a few scenes that will help make it all clear–scenes that will fit into the already-planned story arc and scene structure.

That kind of downtime, you see, is precious.  And I don’t get a lot of it in my daily life.  Between work, ten year old child, and spouse, there’s a lot of talking, and a lot of doing, in my day.  And I need the quiet to be able to figure out what’s going on with the story.

Fortunately, once I know what’s supposed to happen in a given scene, writing does not require silence.  I wrote one of the best scenes in The Widening Gyre while sitting in a room with 300 chattering parents and their kids at my daughter’s school, waiting for an event to begin.  I wrote several other scenes in the middle of restaurants or coffee shops full of noise.

So while it isn’t necessary to actually write down words, it is super necessary to figure out what the general shape of those words should be.

And now, it’s time to get back to the writing.  Tajen’s about to make an idiot of himself before the Kelvaki High Council at the worst possible moment.

What It’s Really Like, Part 2: The Contract

A few days after I sent my acceptance of the terms the publisher was offering, they sent me the boilerplate for their contract.

boilerplate is standardized language used in contracts.  Every publisher has their own.  It’s essentially the same thing you’ll see in the contract.  This is where the negotiation happens.

So I read over the boilerplate, and googled like crazy for a couple of days.  The contract lays out what you’re paid, when it happens, and how royalties are calculated. It isn’t the same for all formats–there’s separate rates for hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, and then rates for remaindered books, and book club editions.

It also lays out how much the author gets for the sale of translation rights, film/tv rights, audio play (as in radio) rights, etc.  Most of those, I imagine, will never be used, but they’re enumerated in the contract.

The contract lays out what happens if I don’t live up to my obligations by delivering the book by the due date (I’ve already turned it in, since it was complete when I submitted it for consideration), and how any disputes between the publisher and I will be dealt with.  I don’t foresee any of that being an issue; it’s all pretty straight-forward.

It all looked great, so I signed it.  I’m sure in the old days this was done primarily via mail, but because the 21st century is amazing, I signed it just like I signed a lot of my mortgage papers–online, via DocuSign.  Thanks to the iPad’s abilities, my finger-signature even looks like my actual signature.  Within half an hour of signing, I got a copy in my email, signed by me, my editor in New York City, and the head of the publisher in London, UK.  I love the future.

Of course, what I know now is that I should have at least tried to hold on to the tv/film rights.  When I signed it I didn’t really care, because in the unlikely event of a film rights deal, I’d get the majority of the money.  But after signing, I learned from a few sources, most eloquently Jen Udden and Bridget Smith, in their podcast Shipping & Handling, Episode 47, that I should have asked for those rights to remain with me, partly for monetary reasons, but also for reasons of control.  Udden and Smith also recommend keeping the rights to graphic novels, and merchandising. They also suggest that if you must give up those rights, try for more than 50% (which I got without haggling, because my publishers are good people). Again, this will likely never come up.  Film deals are exceedingly rare.

I’m not sure how my publisher would have handled that–my understanding is that most of the big houses just grumble and give up the grab at those rights–but, in my case I don’t think I was harmed in giving up those rights even if there is interest further down the road. But it’s a data point new writers should have.

In any case, I don’t actually regret giving those rights up, mostly because the odds of it ever becoming an issue are pretty much against me. But it’s something I’ll keep in mind going forward.

And finally we come to where I am in the process: Waiting. I expect the first-round edits and copyedits in the next 2-3 months.  Publication is tentatively scheduled for March 2019.  I’m working on book 2, which has not yet been signed, and will send off the proposal for it when I’ve got a couple of chapters done (it’s already been plotted and a synopsis has been written).

I’m also doing a lot of research on conventions and other avenues of writerly book promotion.  All while trying to give my kid a fun summer and also plan for the next school year.

Impostor Syndrome, My Old Friend

One hopes, when one is an “aspiring” writer, that once one gets within sight of being published, impostor syndrome will go away.

No such luck. Here I am with a contract, and the stupid brain weasels are still very much wrapped around my brain.

I just sent in my author homework.  And now I’m utterly convinced the editor and other staff are going to be rolling their eyes, convinced they made a bad deal and they need to do whatever they can to rid themselves of this idiot.

It’s nonsense, I’m sure.  If there are problems with what I sent in, I’m sure they’ll let me know and work with me to fix it.  But even knowing that, I keep expecting the worst.

The thing with Impostor Syndrome is that you can’t let it paralyze you.  Sure, feel inferior.  Go ahead and believe that you’re a terrible writer and nobody will ever like your work.  But don’t let it stop you.  Tell your brain to shut the hell up and get back to work.  Eventually, you’ll come out the other side and recognize the BS for what it is.

And then be prepared to do it over and over and over again.  I do it all the time as a teacher, and as a writer. It stinks, but what else are you going to do?

Revision: How A Book Gets Better

So, I’m pretty sure this is a good book that I’m writing.  I mean, I don’t know for sure that it’s publishable, especially in the current condition, but I know it’s at least almost there.

And it’s getting better.

I’m now in Chapter 3 of the revision pass.  Last night, I saw that I ended one scene with the character leaping onto a vehicle and heading off to pick someone up, and then in the next scene, I begin when he gets there.  In reading these scenes, I realized that there’s a problem, and it’s kind of a big one:  The character makes a life-changing decision in the space between scenes.

Well, that’s clearly not going to work.  So I started writing what Jim Butcher calls a “sequel,” that is, a quiet scene in which the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, works through his possible options, and makes choices.  They also allow (and even encourage) the reader to connect emotionally to the character.

In the process, I added several hundred words.  And I’m not even finished, yet.

It’s this ability to easily insert the scene that is why I love Scrivener so much.  Sure, I could do the same thing in Word or some other word processing software, but the way that Scrivener makes it easy is really something, and it doesn’t require me to reformat anything, move any text, or anything other than insert the scene where I want it and write.

The most important thing about this, though, has nothing to do with the tool I’m using.  It’s that even recognizing the lack means that I’m getting better as a writer.

And that’s precious.  That’s what I got from Viable Paradise, and it’s why I’ll keep telling people to apply until the day VP stops happening (may that day never come!).

VP Novel First Draft: DONE

Yep.  I did it.

Not the first novel-length thing I’ve done, but certainly the first that has ANY chance of being seen by other people.  Lots of work remains before that point, however.  I need a revision pass, then beta readers, and then another revision pass.  Then I’ll consider submitting it to agents.

This may not be the novel to get my career started, but I’m going to give it a shot.

I owe thanks to my Viable Paradise instructors, who enkindled in me the confidence to work on this novel with purpose, and not just fart around with it every once in a while, as I did before VP.

I owe thanks to my fellow students of Viable Paradise 17, who have steadfastly encouraged me and commiserated with me over the last year or so.  I realize I have a tendency toward the dramatic, but it is no exaggeration that without their encouragement, I may well have given up the very idea of being a writer over the past year, as I have so many times before.

Let this serve as encouragement to friends and other fellow writers who might be thinking of applying to VP: It’s well worth the money.  All in all, the week at VP cost me about $2000, between airfare, my room cost, and tuition.  And it was worth every single penny, and more beside, because not only did I get a chance to hobnob with people whose writing I’ve adored for years, but I got encouraging advice and critique from editors who are near, if not at, the top of their field, but I met 23 people who will be friends for years to come.

Viable Paradise 19 will be held 18-23 October, 2015.  Applications are accepted until 15 June 2015.  Go to www.viableparadise.net for details.

The Power of Diverse Authors and Stories

When I first started reading Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, I commented to a friend that I didn’t like the “linguistic trick” of using “she” for characters the narrator KNEW were male.  The ambiguous gender of the narrator didn’t bother me. And the story was amazingly good, so I stuck with it.

As I continued to read, I started thinking about why the pronoun issue bothered me, and I came to realize that what I was feeling was probably the same thing women feel when they encounter words like “mankind” or the use of “he” in most literature, though of course I could close the book and not see that anymore.  This, to me, was an important revelation.  I’ve always sort of rankled when people got pissy about words like “mankind,” because to me it’s always been obvious that this means ALL humans, not just men.  It’s right there in the definition, right?  But when I really thought about it, I saw how privileged that was.  As a male, I can say “Mankind means ALL people, not just men! Everyone knows women are in it, too!” and mean it–precisely because I’m male.  It doesn’t take anything from me.  And it occurred to me that if someone said “We don’t need to SHOW black people in the future, everyone knows they’re there,” I would think that person was a complete fucking idiot, and a racist dickbag, too.  And then I had to face that even I, a supposed feminist, have some sexist ideas I needed to examine more.

Having realized all this about halfway into the novel, something snapped, and it didn’t bother me anymore.  I’m not stupid enough to say that that’s it, I’m not full of sexist ideas anymore.  But I am willing to say that I won’t be casually dismissing anyone who says “That was maybe sexist,” or ignore my own privilege.  I’ve always been a staunch ally of women and People of Color, but I think sometimes I forgot that meant I had to examine my own attitudes as seriously as I looked at the attitudes of others, and that sexism doesn’t always mean “thinks women belong in the kitchen.”

This is, I believe, why we need diverse books, written by and about diverse people.  Literature, and more specifically stories, have a way of getting past our defenses, the walls we build between us and the Other.  Stories can force us to confront, even gently, our own views of the universe, our own distorted ways of thinking, better than a thousand arguments from others.

We all see the world from our own particular window, and none of us have exactly the same window.  Mine shows me how the world looks from a relatively privileged place.  But mine is not the same as the window of my friend Mike, who fled Cambodia at five years old, whose last sight of his grandfather’s home in Pnomh Penh was as it was hit by a mortar shell, and who has had to learn to fit in to white American culture.   And my window is not the same as my sister’s.  And it isn’t the same as my friend Brian, who has to deal with racism and homophobia both.

We need stories from authors from all over the world, from every race, from every group and social class, marginalized or not, to show us the view from their window.  Because only by combining our views can we widen them.

 

It’s been a while. Here’s what’s up with me and my writing.

So, I finally got that sleep I’ve been needing.  And I’ve been writing. Around 40,000 words now.  

I realized yesterday, however, that I have a secondary character who needs to go. Poor Takeshi comes on the page for a few statements, then disappears for chapters even though he’s in the same fairly small starship.  I thought about beefing him up, inserting him a bit, but the fact is he’s superfluous.  He’s an unimportant character who, in this version of the story, serves no purpose.  

He used to have a purpose, but that subplot got removed, as it A) was too maudlin, and B) undercut the protagonist’s likability.  But once I’d removed the plot, I had nothing for him to do.  I suspect he needs to be cut.  But I haven’t got time to look back, so I’m going to keep working forward, and if I’ve got a place for him I’ll use it, and beef up his appearances in the first half.  If not, I’ll excise him in the editing phase. 

I’m also concerned about one of the other secondaries; he serves a purpose but I’m not sure having him where he is serves that purpose.  And that I need to figure out before I get to the next chapter, because he’s much more important to the plot and I’m not sure I’m using him right.  But maybe.  Wait… processing… processing… oh.  Yes, that’s what I’ll do with him.  Excellent; thanks for the help, people!  

A conversation between brain, hands, and heart.

“Dudes, what’s going on down there?”

“What do you mean, Brain?”

“There’s no writing going on.”

“Well, you see, the words go through us, but they come from you.  So answer your own damned question.  We’re busy steering a starship, here.”

“But Tajen and his crew have arrived in the Sol system!  They’re about to discover the remnants of the Earth defense forces in the asteroid belt!”

“That sounds good.”

“And then the zhen will jump in-system, and there will be a long game of cat-and-mouse in the outer system and the belt!  And then the zhen will nearly kill the Antares and her crew!  And they’ll crash and discover the horrible secret the Empire’s been keeping for hundreds of years!”

“That all sounds great!  We’ve finished this mission; let’s fire up Scrivener and go!”

“… I can’t.”

“… Why not?”

“Well, you see, I taught all day.  Freshmen.  And they totally sapped my energy. I got ‘nuthin.”

“Oh. Ok.  Well, there’s some Maas shipping out by the Touchdown L-Point, so we’ll go relieve them of their goods, then.”

“But we need to write!”

“And this is our problem how?”

“Well, you’re the hands.  I already came up with the story, just write the scenes!”

“We can’t, dude.”

“Why not?”

The words come from you!  Not just the ideas, man.  The words!  We’re just machines; you’re the goddamned brain!”

“But I’m tapped!  I literally have nothing left to spend on storycraft.” 

“Uh.. excuse me, guys?”

“Yes, heart?”

“I got this.” 

“But your job is just to push blood through the system.  And aren’t you tired from that recent arrythmia episode?”

“Brain. Seriously.  That was weeks ago.  I’m better now.  And hands?  You know, Brain does a lot, but he doesn’t do it alone.  We work best when the words go from me, to him, to you, right?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so.”

“Good then.  Hands, get ready.  Brain, get your whining over with and get in gear.  We’ve got words to write.  The books won’t write themselves, and we won’t be signing any unless we start publishing them first.  And we won’t be publishing any if we don’t write the goddamned things. And seriously, do you want this story still stuck inside your head for the next five years?”

“No, not really.” 

“Right.  So get your ass in gear!  Not you, Butt.  You stay in that chair.  Now, let’s WRITE!”

(A thousand-or-so words later)

“That was a good night.” 

“Indeed.  Goodnight, hands.”

“Good night, brain!”

“Good night, heart.”

“G’nite, guys.  See you tomorrow.”