Every year, my family packs their bags and heads to southern California for the in-laws’ family reunion. There is whining about not having enough time to pack, people sneaking video games instead of packing, people wailing about missing undies, blankies, and swimsuits. Sometimes, one off-task child will come galloping through the bedlam, wearing another’s clean underwear like a jaunty French beret, taunting and just out of reach.
I’m not pointing any fingers. I’m just saying it happens. If your drawers aren’t in your drawers, they might be on someone’s head.
This year, though, I needed to be at work. I dropped Cami and the kids at the airport and waved them off. And despite a full plate at NASA, I’ve found myself with a bit of extra time. Here’s what I’ve been doing:
THE PALADIN’S THIEF: SHADOWCLOAKS
Book Four is well underway, with about 45% left to write on the 1st draft. I’m really excited about the story and motivated to move forward on it every night when I get home from work.
Even more, I’ve noticed that my writing process continues to evolve. I wrote DARTS cold, start-to-finish on a whim and made improvements over the course of three years. I produced RINGS in three months, with a bare idea and a novella’s worth of backstory to start from. By the time I finished RINGS, I’d also roughed in several important scenes for SWORDS, and had a holey outline (unwritten).
SHADOWCLOAKS has been very different. Its core concept sprouted as I was drafting RINGS and dreaming up SWORDS, and this allowed me to set up clues in advance. Unlike the first few drafts of DARTS, SHADOWCLOAKS naturally contains a novel arc and a series arc, and I’ve had to outline more as the complexity and depth grow and the story components suggest recommend unexpected plot deviations. Whenever my outlining gets especially thick, descriptive, and prosy, I cut it from the outline and paste it into the main document, making little islands of story until they all start to join together. But more on outlining in another post.
I like funny things and funny people. Sometimes they like me back. OFFICE MONSTERS has been distracting me from the stuff I’m good at, but forces me to think about different angles for storytelling, reducing word count, and looking for the humor in everyday situations.
So I’ve written scripts for 10-12 comics, and Marta is drawing and coloring them.
I got my science fiction manuscript back from a potential agent. It was his second review, but PlagueRunners didn’t make the cut. That stings a little, but I’ve only submitted it to one agent, and he read it twice and gave specific and useful feedback for improving it.
Sometimes when I get home in the evenings, I’m too drained to write, but I’m not too drained to read aloud. Just need to dig out the Shure SM57 Microphones from the jazz combo days. Anyone interested in an audiobook?
With any luck, I’ll be finished with the first draft of SHADOWCLOAKS before my family gets back from vacation. And one other thing I’ve learned this summer: Worrying about who will criticize or hate your project is death. Thinking about how behind schedule you are is death. Looking for underwear cartoons for your blog post is . . . probably not a good idea.
Above all, the best thing that’s happened this week (besides phone calls from California) has been spending afterhours on something I love. Being thankful for that time—productive or not—has made all the difference.
“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin
Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was good in auditions. Really good. For every show, I was the guy throwing a kicking-and-screaming Aldonza over his shoulder and hauling her off-stage. Great fun, discounting make-up and tight pants.
(I’m not in this photo.)
I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)
But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.
But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back for second helpings.
Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, and I continue to get positive feedback from other writers and editors, but my confidence went way down every time I looked at the forward work. “I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March.” Comparing the few spare hours I have each week for writing with the enormity of project left me emotionally bankrupt. How can I even start on a project that “will never be finished?”
Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.
When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?” I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap subcontracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.
And the exercise made writing therapeutic again. The project wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable parts and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.
Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me that small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.
I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .
What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?
The proof copy for the SWORDS print edition arrived last week.
It crushed its siblings.
They were happy.
Office Monsters (2) Script:
Frank: Ed, I’m tired of you waking me up every afternoon with your stupid car battery.
Ed: Sure. No problem, Frank.
Dimitri: [Smirking] Maybe “tired” isn’t the right word.
Days later. . .
—Hunger Games baked in Divergent Sauce, with a sprig of Gattaca on the side.
GENRE: Science Fiction: Dystopian
MARKET: Not Young Adult
CONTENT WARNING: Violence, Some Profanity, Off-Scene Rape
I won’t say I’ve been avoiding dystopian science fiction, but I have been struggling to find time to read lately. So a friend suggested that I try Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. “The audio version is excellent, Ben.”
So I bit the bullet, bought a few extra credits on Audible, and downloaded a copy of Red Rising.
First I noticed this: there’s a big difference between the Scottish lilt of the Leviathan audiobook and the narrator’s Irish brogue early on in Red Rising, but in some ways that made the world even more interesting and real. I guess I’m a sucker for accents, if they’re well done. Even if you take accents off the table, I still enjoyed Red Rising enough to spend the last few days wandering around in a daze, cleaning, over-washing my hands, and hunting for mindless house chores as an excuse to stay in the story.
While the Red Rising concept rolls out like a grown-up merger of Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Gattaca, and Divergent, it offers an escape from those sometimes simplistic views of good versus evil. Red Rising starts in a subterranean mining colony on Mars, where “Helldivers” lead their drilling crews deep into the red planet’s crust in search of precious Helium-3, the core ingredient needed to turn the lifeless planet into a flowering oasis.
Darrow is the best “Helldiver” around. He’s got quick fingers and a sharp wit. He’s smart, capable, and driven to provide the best scraps he can for his beautiful bride, Eo. Darrow, his clan, and his caste, “The Reds,” think they’re preparing Mars for the rest of humanity, when, unbeknownst to them, humanity has already spread across the surface of Mars.
As this deception unravels for Darrow, a shady paramilitary group offers him a chance at vengeance if he will leave his clan beneath the surface and pledge himself to their cause. Because of his talents, Darrow is chosen to infiltrate the Gold caste and attend their elite “Institute.” Thrown into the deep end, Darrow struggles earn a position of influence that will help him instigate a successful rebellion.
Red Rising’s oppression feels authentic, which means that it probably isn’t appropriate for the Percy Jackson crowd. People die, and the characters, choices, and consequences feel real, albeit couched in a highly fictional setting. By the end of the book, the boundary of villainy moves beyond caste and into personal choice. It’s science fiction, but it’s more about the people than the science or technology.
I especially liked the author’s portrayal of conflicting viewpoints and priorities. Pierce Brown is unflinching in his assertion that certain choices preclude others. Darrow isn’t allowed to have his cake and eat it, too. His rational choices are some of the most poignant moments in the story.
I wanted things to move faster in first few chapters, but once that foundation was laid, there was no looking back. The twists kept me guessing about which avenue Darrow would take to achieve his goals, and his solutions often had realistic and unintended consequences.
It’s not hard science fiction, so don’t expect The Martian, but the tech is fun to think about and described only where it impacts the story. I especially liked the grav-boots and ghost cloaks, though iterations of these ideas are present in both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and explained with an equally vague feel of “magic.”
Red Rising sits firmly in the dystopian sci-fi camp. It’s not written for younger audiences, though teenage boys will likely identify with the protagonist. If you don’t like seeing multiple sympathetic side characters meet an untimely fate, this may be one to pass on. If you don’t mind a slightly darker tale with the promise of redemption, pick up a copy of Red Rising. Darrow’s willingness to buck the establishment makes the ending especially enjoyable.
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“We edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
Last week, I started building a metaphor between writing and shaving. In my example metaphor, I had irregular hair patterns after knee surgery that kept drawing the wrong sort of attention in public.
In fiction, anything that calls undue attention to itself is a problem. The secret to a captivating story isn’t just artistic words and phrases, but the camaraderie that exists between them. Every time a reader comes across a misfit word—even a beautiful one—their suspension of disbelief risks being damaged. I tried to read The Fellowship of the Rings in second grade, but I spent more time in the dictionary than in the story. Granted, I probably should have been reading something else at that age, but . . .
One priority for fantasy and science fiction authors is transporting us from our reality into an alternate reality. Words that break that magic, by being inauthentic, confusing, or awkward, should be cut. Even a gentle reader will become a critic if they get bumped from a story one too many times.
Here are a few issues I see often in the manuscripts I read:
Overly Dramatic Adjectives
Overt attributions of emotion/drama (e.g. merciless army, breathtaking vista, furious opponent) should not be used in place of more descriptive narrative. A reader should feel these things through the actions taken by characters, rather than by getting beaten over the head with the word itself.
Example: “The merciless army advanced upon our breathtaking city.”
A reader can tell if an army is “merciless” independent of the word if the author has already shown (1) the body count, (2) a city in ruins, and (3) a parent so desperate to protect her daughter as to consider killing the child in advance of the army’s arrival. All of these things do a better job of casting an invading army as “merciless” than the word itself.
Sesquipedalian. Pontificate. Prognisticate. It’s fun to show people how smart you are, but words like these score way more points on a Scrabble board than they do in a manuscript. There are exceptions—a character that uses big words to annoy your protagonist (and readers), perhaps?—but generally, if it isn’t an everyday sort of word, think carefully about using it.
Example: “As he ran, Vance cursed himself for not being more perspicacious.”
One of my beta readers marked this word out in bold red strokes and replaced it with the more pedestrian word “clever.” This alters the meaning slightly, but works better for commercial fiction.
These are expressions that get in the way of the story. They often stem from an author’s desire to be poetic, or say things in a new way, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth to the average reader. If the average reader has to spend too much time decoding a book of idiosyncratic (unusual) expressions they’ll get irritated. (And editors have an even lower tolerance for awkwardness.) It’s okay to use conventional language.
Example: “The stillness halted his feet with fear.”
This is an awkward way to say, “He stopped walking when he noticed the eerie quiet,” or “He halted, suddenly apprehensive in the unnatural silence.” Feet don’t feel fear and stillness won’t halt them . . .
Obviously there’s more to revising than just shaving out these little indiscretions, but if you find beta readers, agents, and editors looking at your manuscript funny, it might be time to go hunting for dramatic adjectives, smart words, and awkward expressions. And if you are getting weird looks, pat yourself on the back. It’s a sign of progress. It means you have a knee worth shaving.