Archive for the 'Ken’s Posts' Category
Saturday, January 14th, 2012 by Ken Scholes
Howdy Folks! Happy Saturday!
You’ll notice that we’ve got a theme going on around here this week. And it’s timely, with the first of the year now just behind us.
As the end of 2011 approached, I started thinking about my 2012 goals. For those of you with long memories, you’ll remember my post for 2011. I start there — what did I accomplish from those goals, what other opportunities showed up on my plate, what did I not accomplish…and why. And then, I sit down and think about what is realistic for the next year. Like Carrie, I try to look further out, thinking in terms of where I want to be 1, 3 and 5 years out.
This is what I came up with….
Writing and Marketing Goals:
- Finish Requiem (it needs 65k words — approx 7 weeks of drafting time, plus revision.
- Research, outline and draft Hymn (approx 150k words — approx 2 months to research and outline, approx 5 months drafting time plus revision.
- Write 2-5 short stories (approx 1 week per 5-10k piece)
- Overhaul KenScholes.com
Connecting with Readers:
- Maintain Facebook presence; expand Twitter presence
- Attend Orycon and Norwescon
- Attend SF in SF
- Participate in 3 foreign language interviews
- Answer all reader email personally and promptly
Encouraging Other Writers (Pay It Forward):
- Participate in Cascade Writers Workshop
- Teach “Evolution of a Writing Career” with John J.A. Pitts at Orycon and Norwescon
- Participate in at least one other writing conference if invited
- Participate in Ooligan Press/PSU event
- Present in at least 3 middle/high school classrooms
- Continue Genreality blogging
- Maintain open door policy for writers with questions
So those are the goals. Why did I pick these and not others?
Well, under writing and marketing, my production has taken such a hit the last two years that I really need to keep my focus there. It’s been two and half years since I delivered a book. It’s been fifteen months since I’ve had one come out. I’m later than the White Rabbit…and for lots of reasons. But the bottom line is I’m late, late, late. And not producing consistently for so long has really put me behind, impacted my budget, etc. I can’t market what isn’t written. And connecting to readers only works if I keep growing readership.
So my biggest goals for 2012 are to finish Requiem which is just painfully close to done. And then jump right into Hymn. I can outline on it while I’m drafting, so there’s overlap that can (and should) happen. And really, when I say research Hymn, I really mean read the first three books again with a notebook nearby and have some regular meetings with my trusty Research Scout T’Erick Y’Zir to talk about what pistols I may have left upon which mantles and other miscellaneous loose ends in the series. I think this is aggressive but doable.
In addition to the books, I am already on the hook for two anthology invites and I anticipate potentially up to five short stories this year — possibly some as work-for-hire. I’ll collaborate on at least two. And since short stories take me roughly a week to write and revise, this feels like a pretty realistic goal.
And the website is just something long overdue. I’ve already written most of the new content. It’s just a matter of taking care of a few things and then turning it all over to my newest volunteer. The goal this time is to create a site that is ridiculously easy for me to maintain. Low maintenance.
It’s here in the next section, Connecting with Readers, that I’m cutting back a bit. You’ll note that I have no major cons in my schedule. That’s for a few big reasons. First, I already know that this year’s focus needs to be production. So spending time and money to go off to a big convention — even though they’re fun and often rewarding business-wise — makes no sense this year when each major con costs me 2-3 weeks of production so that my little introverted self can recover. Add to that another important point: Lower productivity last year equals less budget for travel this year. But ultimately, the primary consideration is that I’ll get more work done, writing-wise, if I sit this year out.
Facebook is easy; Twitter has been a tougher one for me to get into. But I’ll focus on that and blogging through the new site. And if we can sync up schedules, I’ll go do SF in SF. They’ve asked me several times and I love the Bay Area. So we’ll see.
I want to expand my Encouraging New Writers/Pay it Forward area. I’d hoped to be ready to roll out my short story adult continuing ed class this year but it’s taking a back seat again. Instead, I’m going to stay the course with last year’s goals, add another workshop if invited, and get into some more classrooms. Late last year, I met with the assistant principal at my old high school. I’m really hoping that at least one of this year’s pay-it-forward goals involves White River High up in Buckley.
And of course, I’ll be blogging here. And maintaining my open door policy. I answer lots of questions from newer writers both by email, on Facebook, and sometimes over lunch. If you see me available for chat in FB, it’s open season. I’ll always tell you if I don’t have time (and that just means send it up in a message or email.)
So 2012 is going to be mostly about…writing.
Next week, I’m going to talk a bit about how to handle unmet goals. Until then, Trailer Boy out!
Saturday, January 7th, 2012 by Ken Scholes
Howdy folks! Happy Saturday!
It’s hard to believe that 2011 is behind me and 2012 is stretching out. What a year…a mixed bag for sure.
2011 saw me safely out of the PTSD woods thanks to Dr. Lipov and his fine crew back in Chicago…a huge win to be sure. But 2011 was also the year we said goodbye to Jen’s grandmother and father in the darkest October I’ve ever known.
I saw no new books out here in the US but several came out overseas and one even picked up the Prix Imaginales in France for best translated novel. The writing itself struggled back to life with about 80k of new words (far less than my normal capacity) but throughout the year, kind words rolled in from all over the world about the words I’d already written. And though I cut my appearances WAY back this year, I still managed to co-host the Hugo Awards Ceremony with my best pal. And I got out to do some teaching and speaking both in my dayjob and in my writing life. My highlight there was a few middle and high school classes I got to work with.
And because of the hit in my productivity, we saw a pretty sizeable hit in our finances. But 2011 marked the end of my wife’s position with one company and 2012 starts with her in a brand new, much better (and better paying) position.
And then there are the brighter patches in my garden of relationships. Jen and I hurtle towards 9 years of partnership and 3 years of parenting…and we’re amazing together. And this year, I’ve picked up some new friends met in various and sundry places, some old friends coming back into my life, and of course the constancy of Team 3J and the rest of my posse of pals. And the brightest patches of all: My amazing daughters. Watching them grow and stretch and learn and be the little people they are has been the high point not just of 2011 but of my life overall. But gosh-wow twins are hard.
Next week, I hit my birthday. I call it the Season of Kenika and I always get introspective as that day approaches. How am I doing? Am I living my own life or someone else’s? Do I have any regrets or course corrections to deal with? Etc. And I also do my goal setting for the next year (which I’ll share NEXT week). So in that inventory, I see 2011 as a year that I’m grateful came and went.
So with 2011 behind me and 2012 ahead, I turn now to YOU and ask: What would you like to see more or less of here in my Saturday posts?
Just so you know, I’m considering a series of posts on dealing with writer’s block and a series on writing short stories. I’m also going to participate in some monthly themes here at Genreality with my blog-mates. But what else? I hate presuming and assuming. So tell me below in comments what you’d like to hear about…or not hear about…and I’ll put it into my processing kettle for the upcoming year.
Saturday, December 24th, 2011 by Sasha White
We’ll be back on January 2, 2012 with new Genreality authors Diana Peterfreund and Helen Kay Dimon joining us!
Meanwhile, here’s a bit of a holiday snack for your enjoyment, taken from my second collection, Diving Mimes, Weeping Czars and Other Unusual Suspects….
What Child is This I Ask the Midnight Clear
It could have been snow, gently drifting down. It could have been virgin white and cold as cold. But it wasn’t.
It was ash and the night wind was hot upon me.
That’s what I remember now when I go out.
That first year when the world was on fire and we slipped over the broiling skin of it, we brave nine. We ran the course all night but found nowhere to land. For the first time ever I did not stop. Not one place. And all the while, as we slid through that broiling night, I kept humming that song. The one about the star, the star. Dancing in the night.
Tail big as a kite.
The end had come suddenly and they’d managed to do it to themselves. I’d always known they would.
I’m airborne now and the past falls away. The ash has long settled and it’s really snowing again. We’re not as loaded down as we’ve been in the past but that will come in handy later. Times have changed. The list has changed, too. And so has my work. Naughty and nice are blurrier now so I’m less meticulous in checking. I do the right thing, instead.
I don’t have to crack any whips or give any whistles. We build speed to bend time around us. We’ll do a year’s work this night and then we’ll sleep a while. I check the ammunition in my assault rifle and loosen the strings on my sack.
Then we start landing here and there and I’m out doing the right thing. Books for a library in Vancouver. Needles and a whetstone for a circuit rider in Laramie. We haul a starving family out of a dead mountain town in Oregon and assassinate a white supremacist who was building a skinhead army in Maine. A handful of twelve-gauge shells for Leonard in Saskatoon. A bottle of aspirin in Bo Phut, Thailand. And so on.
We’re just turning north for home when we see the light.
A star, a star, dancing in the night. Tail as big as a kite.
It builds and then blooms, a piercing white over the horizon to the east. I shield my eyes and look homeward, then back into the light. Is it a bomb? Another crazy moving the world deeper into the hole it has fallen in? Or a satellite falling from orbit? Either way, it’s worth looking into.
I steer east and take us low. As I draw closer, the light shrinks to a concentrated point of brilliance and I aim for it. We pick up speed and rip open space-time for a split second. Then, we bear down upon the town that sleeps beneath that unexplainable, spontaneous star.
There in the glory of that bright light, a child screams.
She is not on my list. I’ve made no stops in this feral country in over a decade. But I hear her screaming and it is as piercing as the star above. I unsling my rifle and we drop right there to hover over what used to be a schoolyard. I don’t know what I was expecting. Someone being harmed. Someone being carved up into pieces by primates gone horribly wrong. I work the lever and feel the solid clunk of a chambered round. Slipping my gloved finger around the trigger, I use my thumb to move the switch to three-round-burst and then I hit ground with a thud. I race across the open concrete, stepping over the frozen clumps of gray weed and watching my breath billow into the cold night air. The screaming stops. I hear heavy breathing instead now. Panting.
What are they doing to her? I feel a rage coming on as the screams start again. I push it down and use it to feed my focus.
Do you hear what I hear, the song asks.
I hear it, I answer.
They rape the world the same way they rape each other.
They kill the world the same way they kill each other.
No list to make or check here. I am bent on violent righteousness when I kick down the makeshift plywood door propped up to keep the wind out.
Someone has turned the old lavatory into shelter but it has gone badly for them. The boy lies cold and still and bloody. The girl’s screams change from pain to terror when I storm into the cluttered room and I suddenly know that things were not what they seem. I see her, in the corner, squatting in a nest of blankets. Her brown hair is long and dirty. Her brown eyes are wild and frantic. The blankets are stained with blood and I understand why. Pale and shaking, her eyes go wide as she sees me standing over the cold body of her dead mate, light spilling around me into the room.
Another contraction and she screams again. I turn, run for the medical kit beneath the driver’s bench. When I return, I go in slowly with my rifle slung and my hands up showing the kit. “I can help you,” I tell the girl.
Her eyes roll and she tries backing away from me but falls back into the corner. Her breath heaves out in ragged gasps.
“I’m a friend.” I keep my voice low and assuring, just like in the old days. Only this time, it’s not a frightened child approaching me from a long line in the mall, nervous at the presence the myth of me has become. This frightened child huddles in a frozen elementary restroom at the end of her tether, trying to shove life into a dead, cold place. “I can help you,” I say again but this time I hear the doubt in my own voice. There is too much blood.
I crouch and move closer, opening the kit and finding nothing at all that I can use.
Then behind me, in the schoolyard, a clatter arises.
The eight snort and stomp and when the howling starts outside, the light winks out. The moon, hidden behind a layer of clouds, offers little visibility.
Pushing the first aid kit towards the girl, I draw my rifle again, thumb off the safety once more. I never unchambered the round. Too smart for that.
More stamping and snorting but no ringing. I took the bells off their harnesses a long time ago.
“Dashing through the snow,” a voice whispers from the edge of the schoolyard.
“O come all ye faithful,” another says.
“We wish you a merry Christmas,” sings a third.
I look over my shoulder at the girl panting in the corner. “Just stay put and keep quiet.”
Donder screams and bucks. Dasher bleats and kicks. I hear the whir of stones in slings, the distant clatters of shots gone wide.
Then, I’m outside and running at a low crouch. I’m fast for a big man, even without laying my finger to the side of my nose. I whistle and I hear the eight lifting off; I hear the labored breathing of the two who’ve been hurt. I hear the disappointed grunts and hungry sighs. I don’t wait; when one of them takes shape in the darkness, large and wide, I put a three-round burst into the center of its mass and listen to the rush of escaping air as that rush twists itself into a shriek of surprise.
Another shape forms beside it, this one bending to see to its friend. I put another burst there. I’ve done this before. I do the right thing.
Then I stop. I smell the burning powder on the midnight air. I listen for my eight, moving in a slow, widening circle above me.
A third takes shape near the others. I move closer, rifle raised. It moves to the left and I tap the concrete with bullets near his foot. “Hold,” I tell him.
I can see him now and he might’ve been human once but the traces of it have left his face and eyes. He’s wearing a red hat like mine, only tattered and dirty. He’s dropped his sling and one of his suspenders is loose and dangling. Barefoot with wet trousers, he trembles before a vision he may have dim memory of, from a childhood spent before the world heaved its last sigh.
“Remove the hat,” I say, “and look to me.”
He pulls it off slowly. Our eyes meet and I’m pleased at the fear I see there. “Life is your gift this year,” I tell him through gritted teeth, “but it comes with a string. Tell the others what you have seen and tell them to be afraid. Every other night belongs to you but this one. I ride on this night with justice and grace.” I raise myself to full height. I fire the rifle over his head. “Now, run like a rabbit.”
He does and as he fades, the night becomes silent and holy for a heartbeat before a new cry, muffled and straining, greets its new home in a broken world.
I turn back and enter the lavatory and in that I am both too late and just in time. The girl is fading fast and in her arms she holds a sticky, bloody bundle packed into dirty cloth pulled from her makeshift nest. I see the cord that still connects them. Her eyes are wide and her nostrils flare when I draw closer but she doesn’t flinch.
She points to me. “Ho, ho, ho,” she says in a quiet voice before making the sign of the cross. She passes the squirming bundle to me and says one final word: “Charis.”
Slinging my rifle, I take the baby. I do the best I can with the tools I have, cutting the cord, closing the mother’s glassy eyes. I remove my jacket. Then I clean the baby and wrap her carefully in it.
I want to stay and bury my dead but I know better. I have not prayed in years but I manage one there beside the fallen mother and father, victims of a nativity gone wrong in a world that struggles between death and birth.
Then, I whistle for my eight. We lift off into the night and I hold Charis close to me, giving the reindeer their heads to take us north and home.
As we fly, I ponder — I wonder as I wander — and I call up my list to see who on this night had wanted the gift of a child. I weep at what I find.
“It’s no place for a child,” I tell the eight as we soar.
“I’m far too old for this work,” I say to them again.
“I am afraid,” I finally admit.
But a vision unfolds to me of a tiny girl in red with elves for her friends and family, raised up with the deer and the sleigh as humanity’s orphan, taught from their books and their art and the better parts of a species tremendously blessed and terribly flawed, trained to go out into that broken world and do the right thing.
And in that moment, the light returns but it is inside me and inside of the baby in my arms, and that light threatens to swallow me whole and I beg it to because within that light is hope and promise and I recognize that tonight was the night upon which the universe — or whomever ran it — gave back to me and did so with a holy charge.
Home arises to the north and we pound sky for it. As we fly, the clouds lift and the starshine falls like a mantle of jewels over the crown of the world.
I feel the peace on earth within my chest.
Goodwill towards men lay sleeping in my arms.
“What child is this?” I ask the midnight clear.
“Yours,” it says, and weeping, we fly home.
(And if you need a bit more Trailer Boy for Christmas, go check out this year’s holiday story at Tor.com!)
Saturday, August 13th, 2011 by Ken Scholes
Howdy folks! Happy Saturday!
Last week, I started us down a quite the autobiographical highway, pointing to the roadsigns and landmarks along the way that I think were key in bringing me to where I am today as a writer. This all came out of some reflection I’ve been doing around where my career is today. Last week, my third novel came out in mass market paperback and next week, I’m co-hosting the Hugo Award Ceremony at Worldcon with my best pal Jay Lake. Both are pretty significant landmarks — very visible for those watching my career from afar — but for all the landmarks that others see, there are the ones that no one could know about but me or those near me, out of sight beneath the surface.
We left off at 2007, so I’ll pick up there.
2007 — Jenn Jackson called, asked if I was sitting down, and then told me that Tor wanted all five books. We’d thought, best case, that they’d want three so we were Quite Surprised. News of the deal started to spread through the community and I made an unplanned trip to World Fantasy so I could spend some time with Tom Doherty and start being introduced around. Jay and I went out a day early, toured the Tor offices, licked some windows in NYC and then had a blast at World Fantasy Saratoga. I felt like Cinderella. Years of being relatively unknown, and suddenly folks knew who I was, wanted to meet me, wanted to hear about the book. It was amazing experience. And a week after I got home, I learned about my Mom’s stomach cancer. A few weeks after that, and she died of complications following a surgery that confirmed she would’ve only lived another few months. I had to make that horrible decision to remove her from life support, complicating already complex grief. I can’t even begin to describe the experience adequately but it was absolutely one of the most challenging, painful, key moments in my life in general and was a tough blow to my writing at a time when I needed to be writing more and faster. I was mid-way through Canticle when I stalled out for the next five months. Somehow, I managed to write “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon,” a tribute of sorts to the impossible relationship I had with my Mom.
2008 — I signed my first major contract, got my first big writerly paycheck, took a trip to Mexico to celebrate my fortieth birthday. In April, I finished Canticle and learned my best pal was starting what’s now turned into a long fight against cancer. In May, Tor sent me to BEA to sign hundreds of copies of the Lamentation ARC, nine months ahead of publication, to start the word-of-mouth campaign. I got home from L.A. to learn that my nephew had been killed by an IED in Afghanistan. Mixed in with that loss, amazing reviews of Lamentation started showing up. In October, my first short story collection came out with Patrick Swenson at Fairwood Press (remember him from last week?) And in December we learned we were pregnant and my dad was in the hospital.
2009 — It was my 41st birthday. We’re sitting in the doc’s office for Jen’s first ultrasound and the doc says “Here’s a heartbeat. Hmmm. Let’s see what else is happening around here….” Neither of us were prepared for the second heartbeat. Happy Birthday to me! And right on the heels of that news, in early February, just a week before Lamentation came out, my father passed away. I went on my first book tour after giving the eulogy at his funeral and Antiphon stalled out at the midway point and waited for another four months for my writing engines to fire. But fire they did, and just a few days after Lizzy and Rae were born, I wrapped Antiphon. I edited my third novel while holding and feeding my tiny little girls.
In October, when Canticle came out, I found myself on the Locus Bestseller list — my first time as a bestseller. I went on a tour to promote the second volume (this time with the uber-talented and ever-lovely Kate Elliott) and…came home and went into a slow, painful collapse. Meanwhile, Spain, France, Germany and Russia were all signing onto the Psalms of Isaak Bandwagon. And my first short story collection, Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Strange Journeys, was a finalist for the Endeavour Award at the end of the year.
2010 — I’ll be honest; I don’t remember chunks of this year. I know that at some point, Lamentation won the ALA RUSA Reading List Award for Best Fantasy of 2009. And Lamentation and Canticle both landed on the Locus Awards ballot. And I started blogging here at Genreality. My workon Requiem was moving at a snail’s pace if at all. I’d had a few weeks here and there where I could work but I’d largely been reduced to rubble. It took half of the year to figure out what was going on. Remember that Unfortunate Childhood I referred to last week? Well, part of its legacy in my life was a really solid helping of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’d been diagnosed in the mid 90s but had lived relatively free of the worst of its symptoms. Until all that Life Stuff pig-piled me. The second half of 2010 was spent trying to get me put back together but the symptoms were worsening. The lack of sleep that comes with newborn twins was a contributing factor, but so was the close proximity of all that loss to all that gain…and all that stress. I went out and promoted Antiphon when it came out in Fall 2010 and largely stayed out of sight beyond that. But I started reading up on a new treatment for PTSD out of Chicago….
2011 — Thanks to Dr Eugene Lipov and the Chicago Medical Innovations Foundation, I flew to the Windy City in February and March of this year to receive the Stellate Ganglion Block. This treatment — a pain block that’s been in use since the 1920s — wiped out my PTSD symtpoms. There are minor leftovers that show up here and there, but nothing at all like what I was experiencing when things were at their worst. And for the most part, my new “good” was better than my prior years with relatively minor symptoms. Of course, I thought getting the PTSD dealt with would bring me racing back to my words and my former 1k words/hour speed limit, that I’d get my book in quickly and write, write, write. I was wrong. Ends up that all those things that needed to be processed when the PTSD flared up still needed to be processed and that took up critical brain-space. Truth is, I’m still not back to my old self all the way. But…. Lamentation won France’s Prix Imaginales. And a few months ago, my buddy Jay Lake and I got asked to co-MC the Hugos. And three weeks ago, I finished my first piece of fiction (a short called “Time Dancing in the Key of E Minor”) just before my daughters’s second birthday party. And last week…my third novel came out in mass market paperback.
So what’s the point in all of this? Why this long, drawn out calendar of events? Well, for those of us on the outside, looking at a writer, we see their words and we see the events that those words take them to. We see when their first words show up on the public scene and we see the award they win or don’t win. We see the very tip-top of the iceberg and we scratch our heads and wonder how they got where they are.
We’re all of us looking for that magic bullet that will lead us to a magic carpet. I know I surely was, from my subscription to Writer’s Digest in high school to all of those writing panels I attended when I first discovered the convention world and those first goshwowsenswunda issues of Locus I cracked open chock full of all that industry news. We’re all hoping there’s a shortcut, a secret door, and some folks have even asked me about the one I seemed to find back in 2007. (Heh.)
And for a while now, I’ve maintained that the only magic bullet is to write, write more, write faster. And truly, I do believe that. But I’m also growing to believe more and more that there’s another piece to that — it’s recognizing that our lives are what give us our stories. We find the depth of our characters in their response to the problems we throw at them and the fodder for all of that is…life. We live eyes and ears wide open. And each step we take in our lives is grist for the Storyteller’s mill if we let it be.
Saturday, July 30th, 2011 by Ken Scholes
Howdy folks. Happy Saturday. I thought that today we’d spend some time talking about finding our voice.
Most writers, in hindsight, can identify the day it happened. Some, like Ray Bradbury, knew it shortly after he wrote it.
Here’s what he said about the experience in his essay “Run Fast, Stand Still” from Zen in the Art of Writing:
All during my twentieth and twenty-first years, I circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.
I finally found it one afternoon when I was twenty-two years old. I wrote the title “The Lake” on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later. Two hours after that I was sitting at my typewriter out on a porch in the sun, with tears running off the tip of my nose, and the hair on my neck standing up.
Why the arousal of hair and the dripping nose?
I realized I had at last written a really fine story. The first, in ten years of writing. And not only was it a fine story, but it was some sort of hybrid, something verging on the new. Not a traditional ghost story at all, but a story about love, time, remembrance, and drowning.
I think it’s also Bradbury who said we have to write about a million words to get to the good ones, give or take. I think that’s probably a safe bet. At the very least, it helps us frame our expectations.
I remember the first story I wrote that was me — my voice — emerging in a recognizable way for the first time. It was called “Blakely In His Heart” and it was about a Notary Public in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian society who runs into a returned Martian colonist sent to make contact with the survivors. When I finished it, I knew I’d done something different there and that the product was something Uniquely Mine. Of course, finding my voice there didn’t mean I continued to use that voice or that the story was publishable. It just meant it was me.
I’ve heard a few opinions on voice over the years — some say it is inherent within the writer and is caught more than taught. Others say it can absolutely be taught. I don’t have a strong opinion myself but I do think we can be nurtured in the direction of finding our voice and I think Bradbury, in another essay from Zen… called “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” hits upon a few ideas for that. My thoughts on it are similar to his.
First, you just have a write. A lot. And then a lot more. Have you ever played a musical instrument? When I first picked up a guitar, I knew nothing. I used a chord chart and taught myself Em, D, G and A. This gave me enough to pull off a rather problematic “Scarborough Fair.” I had to look at the frets. I had to pause and look at the chord charts. But now, with 26 years of practice I have several hundred songs — their lyrics, chords, melodies — all snug in my brain. You can hand me a guitar and I can put on a show that you wouldn’t realize was unrehearsed because…well…because of practice. I play all the time. I learn as I play. And early on my covers sought to imitate the singers and songs I loved the most. But over time, my own voice and my own interpretation of those songs started to show up. Practice did that. And it was the same in my writing.
Second, I think we can find our voice by opening up our eyes and ears to voices beyond those we already know. Reading outside the genre. Reading essays and articles. Reading poetry (aloud.) Listening to music (not just the notes but the lyrics that accompany them.) Go to the library and roam the stacks. Pause here or there, wherever your fancy takes you, and pull down a book. Spend time with voices you ordinarily wouldn’t spend time with. Find someone in their 80s or 90s and get them to tell you stories about both the good and the bad old days. Listen for the rhythm, the cadence, of their storytelling muscles as they come to life.
Then, take everything you’ve experienced and go practice some more. Ease in for the long haul and try not to think about it.
Just write. Keeping writing. Write some more.
Next week, I think I’m going to start a short series on making characters real. Until then, Trailer Boy out.
Saturday, July 16th, 2011 by Ken Scholes
I thought it would be nice to bring someone else in and give you all a break. Please welcome my best pal, John “J.A.” Pitts, author of Black Blade Blues and the recently released sequel Honeyed Words — the first two novels in the exciting new Sarah Beauhall urban fantasy series.
John was my first ever writing friend. We met in 1997 and have been great pals ever since. We started out both slinging short stories against the market and here we are, fourteen years later, both writing series with Tor.
So without further ado, J.A. Pitts!
How many times have you heard “Great first chapter” when someone reads your short story? How many times have you wanted to toss your computer through a brick wall and take up bee keeping, or something else which would hurt less as you heard how the story starts with a bang and ends with a whimper?
I’m here to let you know you’ll be okay. Honest. This is a good problem, for two reasons.
Alpha) You wrote something that made your reader want more.
Beta) You will likely make more money off a novel than a single short story.
Okay, these things are subjective in a lot of ways, but bear with me and I’ll explain.
If the only thing your readers comment on in your short story is that it reads like a first chapter, then you have not given them a compelling or satisfying ending. This is a problem for about 103% of all writers at one time or other in their life. What you really need to do is go back, reread your story and pay attention to what you promise at the beginning. Short stories are like book shelves. You have got to have a matching set of bookends on the beginning and the end of the story.
That way, when the reader sees the ending, they recognize the beginning and the promise you made there. They are satisfied that you have come full circle and tied things up with enough closure to give them that warm, fuzzy feeling we all want from our reading experience (or terror, you know, depends on your genre).
It sounds easier than it really is. The only way to get the hang of it is to write a lot. I mean, a ton — dozens, hundreds of stories or chapters or scenes. Each of those starts with a promise that has to be answered by the end to deliver the punch you’re looking for.
Now, I’ll add my one caveat here. If you are writing literary fiction, your ending my not be as robust as one needs for genre fiction. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Literary fiction will frequently concentrate on other aspects of story telling such as setting or theme, without really coming to a conclusion for the characters involved. Some of those stories can be powerful in their own right, but they don’t often fly as genre works.
For genre — horror, fantasy, science fiction, urban fantasy, romance, western, steam punk (and their myriad of combinations) — readers demand a solid character arc, and at the end of that arc. They want closure.
Let’s take a typical three act arc.
1) Boy (who’s a video game expert) meets girl, in trailer park, both are bored with their existence.
2) Boy loses girl (since all he does is play one video game over and over), but encounters alien with awesome ray gun technology
3) boy finds love with
a. life outside the trailer park (and earth’s atmosphere)
c. using alien spaceship to save the universe
d. all of the above
At 1) the premise is that boy strives for the ultimate high score on his favorite video game, but is bored with his life. He craves excitement and to meet the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately at 2) we realize girl is much too savvy to fall for our heroes platitudes and video game prowess and leaves him and his roll of quarters for more interesting things.
Fortunately for our hero, this super cool alien arrives begging our boy to help save the universe with his coolest of nerd talents and his somewhat inexhaustible roll of quarters.
At 3) our hero, in a fit of heart-sick heroics and an amazing sense of wonder, agrees to flee the earth with this alien and join the ranks of the resistance.
The hero was looking for something at the beginning. Love and adventure, but mostly love. If he doesn’t get love at the end of the story, we are not going to be happy.
Unless, of course, the hero changes. This is what makes really good stories. Maybe what he thought he wanted was love (and the high score), but by the end he discovered he had to save the universe from Xur and the Ko-Dan armada. Of course, if by doing so he can also win the heart of his best girl, then more the better.
See, his success (or horrible, tragic failure) at the end reflects back to the beginning. Our hero thought if he had the love of this one girl his life would be fulfilled. What he learned by the end was that he would sacrifice himself to save the universe. Luckily he survives and this whole saving the universe thing makes him interesting and he also get the girl.
Everything is wrapped up neatly, with a heck of a ride in between.
,Remember the ending doesn’t have to be happy. But it does have to give us closure. He could have died saving the universe and not get the girl, but we’d be okay, because he was willing to go above and beyond his own wants and desires and put the life of his girl and the 9 billion or so other earthlings ahead of his own happiness. Not the gee whiz ending of true love, but something that will leave us with a bitter-sweet fondness for his sacrifice.
Find your favorite author and read the most wonderful short story she’s ever written. Study the structure, take notes. Figure out what promise she made in the beginning and then, as you cruise through the prose and slide into that most satisfying of endings, make note of how the beginning ties to the end.
That’s how we all learn. I can tell you exactly how to make this happen with silly examples and textbook definitions, but the real test is in the doing.
Until you’ve written a whole trunk full of beginnings, middles and ends, you won’t be comfortable.
Now, one or two of you out there will scoff and tell me you’ve never once had a problem with an ending. I salute you and will likely grumble about you over drinks. But, hey. Good for you. The rest of us have to go about it the longer route of practice, practice and practice.
There is no substitute for doing the work. I’m fairly blessed with ideas and drive. I’ve never had writers block (knock wood). I do, however, struggle with endings. I work on them and work on them, because I know that the ending is what you fine folks are going to remember the longest. If I write a ripping yarn of intrigue and adventure, but the end falls flat, you won’t remember the daring-do as much as the fact you were left less satisfied than I promised you at the beginning.
Practice. Write, Read and for the love of Xur, finish what you start. You can’t practice endings if you don’t finish the story you’re working on.
And that, as they say, is all for today.
“But, wait,” you exclaim, brows furrowed. “You didn’t discuss item Beta.”
Good catch. That’s what we’ll discuss next time.
See what I did there? Promised something at the beginning and didn’t deliver it at the end. We sometimes refer to this type of ending as a cliff-hanger, and if not done well it screams cheat. I’ll let you be the judge of how well I did.
I think he did great and I’m looking forward to Part Two. I hope you are, too. Tune in next week! Thanks, John! Trailer Boy out.
Saturday, July 9th, 2011 by Ken Scholes
Happy Saturday! As you read this, I’m off in the Columbia Gorge, child-free and wine-tasting to celebrate my anniversary with the formidable, fierce and fair Jen West Scholes. Having an amazing, supportive partner who believes in my writing has been probably the most important key to the success I’ve had so far. Her hands on the behind-the-scenes parts of my career and her eyes on my stories have been invaluable over the years. Thanks, Jen, for being such a wonderful partner and friend. And for giving me two amazing daughters.
Today, we’re wrapping up six weeks spent on the topic of writing the first novel. Last week, we talked about revision. What next?
Well, first and foremost, if you’ve finished your revisions you’ve just hit another milestone and you know what that means: Time to celebrate and fill the tank back up with Story again.
So set the file aside and take a few weeks off from it. Do something fun to celebrate the accomplishment much like when you finished the draft. Because, really, this is a big deal. A LOT of people are working on their first novels. Not a lot can say they’ve finished, but you have. So celebrate. And after celebrating, do whatever you do to replenish the story tank.
This is also a good time to send it out to a few final pairs of eyes — people who haven’t read the book yet who can take a pass through it as readers. Send it over to them and give them a few weeks to read it and get back to you on how it flows, story-wise.
After you’ve let it sit those few weeks, it’s time for you to put together your synopsis. It’s not always necessary (I’ve seen three novels into print without ever having written a synopsis) but under most circumstances you’ll want to have one. Do your homework — there are lots of good articles on the web about synopses.
Ideally, your last eyes on the story will be getting back to you as you finish up the synopsis. Check out their feedback and decide whether or not you’re going to take another pass through the manuscript. If you do, make it your last until you have feedback from an editor who could buy the book from you. As I’ve said earlier, too many writers get bogged down into eternal revision of their first novel. You will learn more by writing and revising your second, third, fourth, fifth novels rather than spending the next five years working on your first.
Next up, it’s time to figure out what to do with your novel. Letting it sit isn’t an option. Working on it for years and years and years should also be taken off the table. I have a great idea! Let’s submit it for professional publication!
You have some choices here, too, and I recommend starting where you have the best chance of success. If you’ve been out in the world meeting agents and editors at conventions, you may have some business cards and some invitations to submit something. Look over the contacts you have and their submission guidelines (usually posted online somewhere) and see if anything lines up.
It doesn’t matter which you send to first. If you had good conversation with an agent who seemed interested, submit there. If you spent two hours talking in the bar to an editor with one of the major houses and they asked if you had a novel, start there. If you land an offer from the publisher before you’re represented it’ll make finding representation rather simple. But pick someone and follow the steps to submit your work to them.
The voices in your head will likely tell you your book isn’t ready. And they may be right but you have to learn to let go at some point and let the editor or agent do her job. Our head voices are often skewed. Submitting your work for publication is every bit a critical step (in my opinion) as drafting and revising that work. It’s a package deal.
So put that work out to market, create a log for tracking it, and then keep that novel out in front of editors and/or agents until you have an offer, until you’ve exhausted all of the professional markets for it, or until you’ve been given sufficient and compelling pro-level editorial feedback to improve the book. And even that last bit makes me a bit nervous. But if an editor were to offer a revision idea that would make them want to see the book again it may make sense. But I say it with hesitation because if, after every bit editorial feedback, you were to overhaul the manuscript again I do not think you would be very well served.
Again, as much as anything, this is a numbers game. The more you write, the more you practice. The more you practice, the better you get. Which means your next novel should ideally be better than the last one. And the next one better still. And so on.
So create your list of places to submit, based on publishers who publish and agents who represent writers who are writing what you enjoy writing, put that first query letter or synopsis or batch of chapters out into the mail and then forget about your first novel until you have compelling reason not to.
And what next?
Sit down to your computer and journal out everything you learned about yourself in this process. When did you get your best work done? How many words did you average in a day? What things helped or didn’t help you meet your goals? What would you like to try differently next time? You never know when that journaling might turn into a blog post to help someone else along the way.
And after that?
Yep, you guessed it. Go write your second novel. Continue your learning curve and stay so focused on your current project that you’re not sitting around fixated and nail-biting over your last project. Let it stay out to market; you go get busy on the next book.
I hope these last six weeks have given you something to work with. And I hope you’ll let me know about other topics you’d like to see me tackle here in more depth. I’ve had fun exploring this one with you.
Now, don’t you have a book to go write?
Next week, my pal John “J.A.” Pitts, author of the Sara Beauhall books (Black Blade Blues and the recently released sequel Honeyed Words) will be guest blogging for me on the topic “How Do I End This Crazy Thing?” And for those of you in the Portland area, John will be reading and signing at the Beaverton Powell’s on Wednesday 7/13 at 7pm. Show up and give him some book signing love! I’ll be there doing the same.