Sunday, December 25, 2011

'Twas The Night Before Christmas...

...and all through the house, not a creature was stirring.

Except for the writer hell-bent on finishing a first draft. And he did, damn it. 73,079 words in exactly six weeks and one day.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Believe The Fortunes

Yesterday, I needed a pre-dinner snack because my wife and I made the ridiculous decision to go to Target in the evening. And as she went upstairs to get ready, I found two fortune cookies from our take-out earlier in the week.

Fortune 1: Your talents will capture the highest status and prestige.

Fortune 2: Your talents will be rewarded and recognized.

Now, I'd like to think that fate was giving me a reassuring nudge with my progress on The Pause (62k words with eight outlined chapters left to go) instead of just happening to get the "Your talents" batch of mass-produced fortune cookies. In any case, I had been working on The Pause right before I got those cookies and in a moment of "Did I do it all wrong?" self-doubt that I'm sure all writers are familiar with, it was a nice little bit of reassurance.

I'd been going on the pace of 1-2 chapters a day, so it looks like I might obliterate my original goal of a first draft by the end of January. I might finish by Christmas, and outside of an agent and a publishing deal, I can't think of too many better possible gifts than a completed draft.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When NaNo Attacks

I've been quiet these past few weeks and it's not that I'm ignoring the whole noveling process. In fact, I'm basically devoting all of my free time and energy into it. It's been my version of Nano, starting on November 17 rather than on November 1.

The results so far: 45,000 words. The NaNo goal is 50,000, and I should be able to break that before December 17.

My target word count for a working first draft is 75,000. But at the same time, I have some placeholders which essentially just have "This goes here", so I'm guessing the realistic end of the first-first draft is 70,000 words, then when I fill in the holes, it'll be up to around 75,000.

In my previous attempts to Nano-charge through something, I've often used an outline to get through it. I find that having that structure helps me generate ideas better. Now, I referenced Blake Snyder's Save The Cat in my last post, and what I've found is that this has given appropriate pacing to that structure. Blake Snyder essentially breaks the story up into four parts:

1) The setup
2) The first half of the second half (fun and games)
3) The second half of the second half (bad guys close in)
4) The synthesis, where it all comes together

With a rough story arc done based on the Save The Cat beat sheet, I've found that I've been pacing based on each quarter. That is, I know what beats I have to hit in each quarter, but with an associated word count, I can create a rough map for each scene (assuming each scene averages to 1,000 words). This leaves enough wiggle room for improvisation and random inspiration but enough structure to keep it focused. And by writing the story chronologically this way, each quarter-section map allows me a little bit of time to breath, review what's been done, and incorporate surprise elements into the next quarter.

My original goal was 50,000 words by the end of December, then a finished first draft at the end of January. Screw that, let's aim high and see if I can finish the first draft by the end of 2011.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November To Semi-remember

Hey, look! November didn’t swallow me whole, as I’ve returned and I’m NaNo-triumphant! Well, at least in the proper context of things.

See, in early November, Sierra Godfrey discovered this miracle book called Save The Cat. We spent many, many, many late night Google Chat sessions deconstructing the storytelling advice in this book and applying it to our own works in progress. At the same time, I was considering the target market and lead POV for A Question Of Lust, and the Save The Cat formula seemed to be a good way to help me restructure things.

And it worked! It worked too well, actually, as some cutting and pasting and editing got me very happy about my first half. The second half…well, structurally, it was a mess because of the shift in lead POV. Everything either happened too fast or too slow and I spent a week pondering all of this.

Now, I had an idea hanging around in my noggin that I’d discussed in brief with Sierra and Christy Finn. The working title was The Pause and it was literally a few major story arcs and rough character outlines, but the idea itself – a mash-up of Nick Hornby-style and genre fiction –really tickled my fancy.

With that in mind – and being frustrated to hell with my second-half structure – I decided to work with the Save The Cat beat sheet and see if I could flesh out a full story for The Pause. It came together quicker than I thought, and it seemed logical to just start writing the darn thing. At least then I could really participate in NaNo.

That was around mid-November. Two weeks and two Thanksgiving dinners later, I’ve pounded out 20,000 words and I feel like I have a very solid outline for pushing this forward. I’ve talked about how much I love outlines in the past, but the beauty of Save The Cat is that provides structure to the outline. An outline itself can only go so far if you don’t know the appropriate length of a section, and having set targets makes pacing much, much easier.

Do I attempt to fix A Question Of Lust? Perhaps later; when you’re on a roll, you might as well ride it out. I’m one to set lofty goals for myself – I’d rather aim high and push myself than set modest targets and not doing as much as I could have. So, it’s December 1 and I’m pretty happy with my outline, so I’m putting the end-of-December goal to have 55,000 words in The Pause done and the full first-draft done by the end of January.

It’s not quite what some of you other NaNo-ers have managed to produce, but all things considered, I feel full-speed-ahead with it. We’ll see if the Save The Cat beat sheet helps dull the usual burnout feeling around the 35k mark.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Failing NaNo, Saving Cats

I have a confession to make. It's ten days into NaNoWriMo and I haven't advanced a single word on my new manuscript. I have excuses, of course -- Sierra Godfrey and I are launching a new website design/build business and getting the final site layout and content has taken a lot of time. **SHAMELESS PLUG -- We offer affordable WordPress-based services for authors who want to move off of Blogger or social media and want to move on to their own custom-designed site. And yes, I am totally aware of the irony of this as I post on a Blogger blog.** I've also been swamped with client work, so while my cumulative word count is probably NaNo worthy, it hasn't been applied to fiction.

Thus, EPIC FAIL for NaNo.

However, Sierra did tell me with unbridled enthusiasm about a book that would CHANGE MY LIFE FOREVER. I scoffed at the notion, but I did as she insisted and picked up Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. Apparently, a lot of you have to, and why the hell didn't you tell me before?

If you've made it this far into the whole trying-to-publish realm, chances are you've got your writing chops and it's your storytelling chops that are continuously being refined. Though technically a screenwriting book, Save The Cat can be applied to fiction or narrative non-fiction. Yes, it did change my life. It, as Darth Sidious would say, gave me focus and made my writing stronger.

Since I got the book, I have been applying its lessons to A Question Of Lust by sharpening the focus and restructuring the narrative. I've also decided to shift my 1/1A protaganists, so I have to rebuild the second half of the story. It is a pain in the ass to be sure, but it's probably just as valuable as putting down 10,000 words on an unstructured new manuscript.

Speaking of which, that gets put on the backburner for at least a few weeks, but the Save The Cat tools have at least put me in the direction where I know I can streamline my usual outlining process into something that fits the appropriate storytelling structure.

The second-best part about Save the Cat is when I have it on the couch next to me and my cat Akasha curls up between my butt and the book while I'm typing. She doesn't get irony even though I tried to explain it to her the other night. She does, however, love watching hockey with her dad as seen below.

Seriously, she sits on her little perch and watches games with me. It could be because the white ice and players/puck look like little critters for her to track, but I really think it's because she's subtleties of the game, like a strong down-low cycle.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Will you NaNo?

Last year, I opted not to participate in NaNoWriMo. I had started a manuscript called A Thousand Words when I got hit with the idea for what would eventually earn the tentative title of A Question Of Lust. (How's that for non-committal?) As I started flushing out the idea, Sierra Godfrey and I had a little informal contest where we saw who could write more by January 1.

Let me tell you, there is NOTHING more motivating than seeing a word count total pop up in your email.

This year is a little different. I'm in the editing process of AQOL, and thanks to some critical feedback, I'm trying to reframe the starting point for one of the leads. I also have a wonderful new idea that I firmly believe will be entertaining and unique; I've done some plotting and a few character-sketch scenes, but no real solid work on it.

So that leaves me with the impending NaNo. Do I focus on editing so I can get that out the door and begin the query process? Or do I try to hammer out 50k words on this new idea? Or maybe a compromise solution for both?

I'll probably stick with the last idea. I figure as long as SOME progress is being made, I should be happy, even if it doesn't come with the official NaNo criteria. It's all done in the name of motivation, after all.

Will you NaNo this year? Or are you going to work on other projects?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Judge, Don't Tell

When I first saw the commercial for One Day, I dismissed it as some run-of-the-mill Hollywood romantic comedy because, well, that's exactly what it looked like (and apparently, that's what the reviews said). Now, I admit that for a writer, I tend not to pay as much attention to popular novels as I should, so I was a bit surprised when Sierra Godfrey told me that not only was it a book, it was an absolutely fantastic book in the vein of Nick Hornby's best work.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I waited patiently for six weeks while the Palo Alto Library got an available copy for me, but once I picked it up, I knew exactly what Sierra meant. The banter was witty, the characters were vivid, and the pace of the writing was brilliant. And as I contemplated the what just made David Nicholls' writing so crisp and engaging, it took a bit of analysis to figure it out.

Short aside: despite having a ton of creative endeavors, I can be very mathematical about stuff. In fact, I tend to see the foundation of creativity as a bit of an algebraic equation, because you're often trying to properly balance the variables of what's good -- and how often to use them.

How does that apply? I try to look for patterns of what works and remember to implement it. In this case, I looked at Nicholls' descriptions in between the dialog. We've all heard the whole "show, don't tell" thing, but what Nicholls does (and my writing idol Nick Hornby does too) is that the descriptions go further than simply showing in a well-written way -- the characters are often applying their own judgments in this sentences.

Here's an example from the opening chapter:
Gratifyingly his hair was terrible, short at the back and sides, but with an awful little quiff at the front. Whatever gel he used had worn off, and now the quiff looked pert and fluffy, like a silly little hat.
For the above example, I can think of a number of ways to rewrite that to achieve the same descriptive effect, but you wouldn't get Emma's opinion out of it. In these two sentences, Emma's judgments about Dexter's hair are obvious: "terrible" and "awful" and "silly." Because of that, it helps us see what Emma is seeing while getting a little peek into her own character. Using this technique, you accomplish two things at once: first, get a creative description to the reader and second, provide insight into what the character is thinking.

Now, I don't think this will work for all situations, such as neutral narration (I do think it would be funny to sneak this into some of the technical docs I write). However, it's a simple way to infuse character perspective into description, streamlining your prose while making it more powerful. Isn't that always the goal?