Friday, July 31, 2015

Real Innovation - What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?

We talked about "enhanced books" on #futurechat today.  Whenever that subject comes up among publishing professionals, I always end up chewing through a steel filing cabinet in frustration.

I mean, Friday's chat was actually a pretty interesting one. (Check it out here -- it's a twitter chat, so be prepared to click and scroll to try to find the various threads of the convo.)  Publishing people are not a dumb crowd.  It is always an interesting conversation.

But the thing that makes me chew steel and spit nails is that the whole conversation tends to be based on a false premise.

No, really, listen...

What is innovation?

Problem solving.

That's it. That's the critical foundation element of innovation.

If someone presents an innovation, the first thing you ask is: "What problem are you trying to solve?"

And, um, just a hint: when you are talking about being innovative with a product or service, you are talking about the CUSTOMER'S problems, not the producer's problems.

And whenever we talk about enhanced books, we never talk about that.  Publishing peopel keep talking about their own problems instead.  How do we keep from being marginalized?  How do we compete with games and movies and the internet for our customer's attention? 

And yes, the correct answer to those question is INNOVATE!  But then you have to actually BE innovative, and that means:

You have to focus on solving the customer's problems, not yours.

The customers do not have a problem that is solved by enhanced books.  They have all the shiny, push-button-y, video- and audio-enhanced everything in the world they can want.  They're not bitching and moaning about not having enough bells and whistles.  If they feel the need for that, they have PLENTY of products that fulfill the need.

(Although, if you have a project that calls for bells and whistles, sure, go ahead and create it to be the best it can be. Just don't call it innovative.)

So what is the customer's actual problem? What are they bitching about?

The answer is the thing that really makes me grind steel between my teeth: the biggest, most obvious problem of the customers in publishing is something that publishers have always considered core to their business:

Content and Curation

Seriously.  I know that those of us in the Indie Publishing Revolution have been screaming "Destroy the gatekeepers! Ça ira!"  And as readers we are SO glad to get rid of the old curation system where books would go out of print, and series we love would be cut, along with authors we loved.

But we hated that because, under the old system, curation limited our choices.  We don't want limits.  We don't like 'em.  An no, we aren't drowning in a sea of crap, thank you very much.  After 20 years of internet, we're all pretty good at filtering crap.

But we still have problems that relate to content and curation.  For instance....

The Naughty Regency Romance and the Old Hippie

I have been disgruntled about my choices in mystery for decades (see my screed on The Murder of the Mystery Genre), but I think an even better example of a customer with a problem is a friend of mine. 

At first glance, it seems a simple enough problem: She's been frustrated trying to find a Regency Romance that isn't full explicit sex.  And at this point, she'll settle for a "clean" romance -- but that's not actually what she's looking for either.

She's not a church lady.  She's not Christian.  She's an old hippie lesbian who swears like a sailor. So she's not looking for "clean" in the way that a church lady would.  She's not looking for conservative values or clean language or a whitewashed world.  She's just looking for light entertainment, and she's not that psyched about the physical aspects of boy meets girl.  (And even if it was girl meets girl, she's not reading the romance for that element.)

What she wants is the deep interpersonal part of the romance (sexual attraction can and should be a part of it, but please draw the curtain as she doesn't want to see it), intelligent banter, funny turns of plot, maybe a little intrigue, suspense and even magic, with good old fashioned justice that people of all political perspectives can enjoy, and a Happily Ever After ending.

She's re-reading old classics, because everything new she tries is too sexy or too Christian.

In the meantime, we know that those readers of clean Christian fiction have been complaining about having to be in the Inspirational Ghetto.  They can't always find what they want either.

And I can't find that exact mix of Hitchcockian suspense, madcap comedy, clue-based whodunnit, and with characters I love, and emphasis on their relationships (romance or not).  Preferably with a serious thematic undertone that doesn't interfere with the comedy.

Folks, this is an opportunity.  Not just for the writer to write what we're looking for, but for the curator to help us find it!
This is what you guys in publishing and bookselling do.  Right? Isn't it?

But it doesn't work to do it the way you used to.  You need to innovate.  To change how you do that curation thing, that content nurturing thing. You need to change how you think about your existing role.

Because there are other people working on it.  That's the way it is with actual pressing problems.

Amazon is doing it the automated way -- using algorithms to leverage customer behavior patterns -- and they would really like it if someone else were doing hte heavy lifting.  This is why they bought Goodreads and Shelfari, and why they have Affiliate Programs that support the bloggers who try to act as curators.

But their content curation is crowd-sourced, so it will always be weirdly averaged.  Different authors and publishers will use the same keywords on very different books -- because the line between, say, romance and erotica varies widely from person to person.

It works, but it still leaves us frustrated and looking for a solution.

A real innovator in the field is Netflix. They have a more reliable system because they actually use content experts to watch and tag movies with keywords based on things real customers are looking for.  Not just genre, but subtlties.  I'ts robust and deep, and best of all, consistent.  They may have different standards than I do, but because those standards are applied across the board, I know what they mean.

So, if you want to innovate?

Here is is, a burning problem that really matters to your customers. 

Your old solutions won't help, but your expertise will.  In a world where every kind of book is available to every kind of reader, help the unique customer find the unique book they want.  Not the book you want to sell them, not the book you think is good for them or deserves more attention, or the book that everybody else is buying -- the book that will fulfill their dreams.

You could do this in big ways (a unified repository of professionally key-worded and tagged books) or in small ways (nurturing micro-genres for niche audiences, or exhaustively cataloging such a small niche).

But if you want to innovate... solve MY problems, not yours.

See you in the funny papers.

Which Way Did She Go?

I didn't disappear. I've been right here.

I just discovered that if you're going to disengage for a while from the Writing Community, it is best not to announce that you're going to do it, or say when you expect to be back, or what you'll do while you're gone.

If you do that, you haven't actually disengaged.  You've just gone into Stealth Engagement Mode.  (I would explain that in a lengthy blog post, but that would put me back in Full Engagement Mode. So I won't.  You can figure it out for yourself.)

Also, I'm not going to give you a progress report or a list of plans, etc.  (Uber-Full-Engagment Mode!)

The Writing Community is a Time and Attention Sink-hole. A Vortex of Doom.

(You're being sucked in, Camille!  Disengage!  Disengage! .... Oh, what the hell....)

It's not actually the company of other writers that is the problem.  (This is why I have continued to engage with people on Twitter, and even take part on Twitter chats.)  There is, however, an element to the online writer community where I feel like I'm wearing my work clothes.  There are social obligations and professional codes lurking underneath.  It's like ... the Academic Community.

Okay, except in certain circles, it's not as bad as Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?  But there is a nagging careerism, a subtle imperative to make connections, build reputation.  If you don't end up actually posturing, you do at least find yourself striking a pose now and then.  You  begin to limit your own thinking, even.  Not consciously, but when everyone around you is marching in step, you have to make a conscious effort to break out of step -- and that is almost as limiting as just going along with the crowd.

Sometimes, you just have to put some earplugs in for a while, and restrain yourself from taking part.  And then you can start hearing the rhythm of your own heartbeat.

So I'm all Zen right now, and I intend to stay that way for a bit.

I'm not going to talk about writing for a while, though I may talk about publishing -- that is the big cultural issues, not the 'how to succeed in' part.

I've been taking a break lately by flinging myself with utter abandon into my family history and geneology.  I am currently locked in a battle to the death with my great-great-great grandmother and her mother-in-law (or, at least, one of her mothers-in-law) both of whom seem determined to make the tracing of the family impossible by marrying, remarrying, changing chlidren's names, farming out kids and taking in kids and changing their names....

And I thought my great-great-grandmother's husband, the drunken French Canadian lumberjack, was going to be the interesting/difficult one in the family tree!

Anyway, I started a blog about my journey into family history -- Clues to the Past.  I will update it fitfully, and probably mention things here too.

In the meantime, see you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


I suddenly got all artistic, and I wanted to share some images I created tonight.

First a little background: I've been thinking about a couple of different kinds of images, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to combine two very different styles.  Take the cool (or even cold) abstract style of mid-century modern designers like Saul Bass, and merge it with the emotionally overwrought style of some of the pulps.

I'll talk more about this when I have created some examples of what I want to do.  I'm going to just start with manikins in overwrought poses.  And also just playing with textures and contrasts of the "pure design" type cover.

This image was accidentally created in InDesign rather than Illusttrator. (I was wondering why it was SO HARD to do basic things like add and change points.  I wasn't working in a drawing program! D'oh.)  As a result, this manikin is not being as dramatic about trying to block that door as she should be.

I am, actually, pretty impressed at what InDesign let me do, and the tools it has.

However, because I couldn't export the image as anything but a pdf, I couldn't do anything to make it more sophisticated either.  I'll be playing with more in this series.

In the meantime, here is the cover I had the most fun with tonight. I was inspired by an old cover with a similar concept -- that is a sketchy, shadowy figure with binoculars where the glass is a highlight that really stands out.

I abstracted it a little more, and played with textures -- and also with different modes for the layers -- each layer is either transparent, or is in "Overlay" mode that draws on the colors beneath it.

This is obviously, a very creepy "thriller" cover, but I think it could work for mystery suspense, especially in the right series.  (The colors I ended up with was partly dictated by the effects.  They are so interlinked, that I can't effectively change them on this one -- but if I planned better, I could do this with different color palettes to get a different mood.)

Anyway that's what I've been doing on my summer vacation.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Update - Breaking for June

I thought I wrote an update post, but it is nowhere to be found.  It will undoubtedly show up after I rewrite it from scratch....

Pretty Little May

May turned into another month from hell.  And I am currently not feeling well.  I am late on the next podcast. (It's recorded, not fully edited, and I need to write and record the intro.  Simple stuff, except not.  Especially with a sore throat.)

This month did allow me to validate another part of the Xtreme Outlining experiment.

I mentioned, back when I started this that one of my secondary goals was to see if Xtreme Outlining would help deal with those times when life (voluntarily or involuntarily) derailed your attempts at writing.  That is, by using this method, could I more easily drop and pick up a story, seamlessly and quickly?

I can say that, for at least the shorter interruptions (say, a full week) it works like gangbusters.

It's really easy to get back into the story.  I had interruptions that were long enough to forget about the direction, the emotions, where the protag's mind was, etc.  A quick review of the outline, and maybe a pause to revise some work already done (which gets my mind back into the voice of the story) is all I need.

So, score one there.  This was my original purpose of the experiment.  All by itself, that's a win.

June, June, June

I have no particular goals for June. June will be jam packed with activity -- so I'm taking a vacation from the blog, and from most internet activity.  I'll keep on top of comments, and Twitter. 

I'm not taking a vacation from writing.  And while the podcast will go on a short break after the next episode, I will definitely be recording.  Art is going to be priority three, so I don't know if I will get to it, though I have visions of design in my head.

(EDITED TO ADD: one of the things I might record is a bit from the current story.  This is what I wanted to blog about -- how looking forward toward reading it aloud is a galvanizing part of the process now.)

So off I go.  I'll be back in July.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Pen Names - Should I or Shouldn't I?

When I first started self-publishing, I considered using a pen name for the first couple of books I published.  I didn't because I write too many different kinds of fiction, and if any had a different name, they probably all should have one.

Every now and then, I do regret that I didn't use a separate pen name for my children's fiction... except I really couldn't. For two reasons: one is that most of the children's fiction I wanted to self-publish has already been published under my own name.  Same with my fantasy and mystery short fiction.

The other is that my "children's" fiction tended to be all for different ages, and most of it was actually written for adults. I couldn't find a clean line to draw between my different stories.

So I ended up just using my own name because it was easier, and because in the end, my work is unified by my own style, and genre has little to do with it.

Enter the Story Game

When I started playing with the Story Game a couple of years ago, even before I thought of writing stories from it "for reals," I planned to write these books under a pen name. 

I had three reasons for this:

1.) The books might suck, er, I mean be kinda cheezy* (in a cool, pulpy sort of way).

I enjoy pulp and old movies.  When I read, I can forgive a certain amount of extra cheeze or illogic or datedness in a story if it has something to compensate for that.  Usually, with a pulp story, there is a certain zest to it that comes of being written fast, cheap and sure.

And I would like to have the freedom to write something cheezy or stupid.  Even if others know I wrote it, using a pen name feels like saying "Hey, I warned you."  Or maybe "I meant to do that, honest."  It's like... giving myself permission.


Let's be honest here: I tend to give myself permission to write whatever I want anyway.  And these books aren't coming out any cheezier or dopier than anything else I write.

And ... if I ever do come up with something truly cheezy and dopey later, then I'll want to use yet another pen name to separate them from these books.

*(NOTE: "cheeze" is not the same as "cheese" though both can be stinky or tasty, depending on circumstances.)

2.) A pen name puts another layer of separation between one kind of story and another.

Most of my work is very hard hard to divide one genre from another.  But I plan for this series to be very consistent and up to code in terms of their genre, even if they are a series of stand-alone books, and even if the genre in question is a little dated.

So if these books have genre consistency... that means they'll have a chance to appeal to people who like to know what they are getting. The sort of people who don't like my regular work.

Furthermore, these books were planned to be different in style, not just genre.  So even people who like cross-genre fiction might not like my regular style.  Using a pen name, then, would give them a fence line.  "End of Safety Zone.  Here There Be Quirks!"


As far as I can tell, the style and appeal of these stories are turning out to have pretty much the same quirks as my regular fiction.

So the fence is kinda pointless.  (Here there be quirks, and also there there be quirks.)

3.) Typography.

Typographically speaking, my name has only one good thing going for it: the first and last name are about the same length.  Which means you can stack the first name on top of the last and they'll look nice and square. But that's about it.   No interesting opportunities for nesting or interactions between letters, or to play with different size and stacking.

If I use a pen name, though, I can choose it based on typographical possibilities!  I can choose the initial letters, and all the rest of the letters and make each name any length I freaking well please.  I can have interlocking As and Vs, or nest a short first name between the risers at the beginning and end of the last name. Or do that thing with the large block sanserif type where a long first name is stacked, in small type, on top of a gigantic but short last name.

I can change an N to an M just to make the text line up the way I want. I can add or subtract a vowel.


As I look over various pulp covers for the right "look" for the series, I find that the one that works best is one that depends on the type being really plain and boring.  No stacking, no interlocking.  Who cares whether it's an N or an M?

I can't find any examples just now, but it was a post-pulp paperback style, oddly self-conscious, while pretending it isn't.  Kind of a "hipster meets grunge" thing: where there would be this incredible mid-century modern art, but the typography and design elements were so plain they seemed to say "Hey, this is just a cover on a cheap pulp paperback - it's what's inside that matters."  Kind of pretentious and anti-pretentious at the same time.

Which is something you can say for a lot of visual arts of the period.

And for that particular style, it doesn't matter what your name is. It's like typing it on a typewriter.  If it comes out ugly, that's just how it is.

(Maybe, someday, when I track down the examples of what to do, I'll explain why I think this would be a good style to use.)

So anyway... much as I like the idea of using a pen name for these books, I am beginning to lean away from the idea. 

It will, of course, ultimately depend on how these books come out, and how the art comes out.  It's just looking more and more like it's all a part of my existing brand.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DNP Ep 2 - Zen Mountains and Regaining the Joy of Reading

I've been hearing again from writers who bemoan the fact that they can't enjoy reading like they once did.  That, and an interaction about the folk/rock singer Donovan on Twitter, inspired me to write a blog post about how you will get it back.

You can listen to the audio version here, or read the text below.

Download link: Daring Novelist Podcast - Episode 2 4:00 min

Here's a famous quote from a zen master that really applies to writing:

"Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen, through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this, when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters." - Chingyuan Weixin

What's that quote about?  Well, I think it's about something we all experience in learning our craft.  Everybody who learns a new skill, especially creative skills, has a moment when they cease to enjoy the thing they are learning about.

So when you are a reader, you love reading, and you experience the story as a story.  It's not complicated, the story just is what it is, the way a mountain just is what it is.

Then you start learning how to write, and how to make your story work as well as those other stories you love, and suddenly you find that you can't read for pleasure any more.

Suddenly you don't see the story any more -- you see elements. You see how it works but not what it does.  Or if you see what it does, you no longer feel it in yourself.  You are too aware of the mechanics and parts.

Many writers fear reaching this point.  Some give up in despair, because they think the magic is gone. Others shut their eyes tight and back away, determined to recapture their "innocent" state, and stop learning. 

Yet others sigh, and continue on, mourning the loss of the magic of the story, but happy to have achieved a different happiness through creation.

Now and then you'll hear someone quote a poet about how if you analyze poetry it's like dissecting a frog -- you might learn something but you kill the frog in the process.

But that's utterly wrong.  That's not really how literature works.  Because you can't kill a story by understanding it -- not any more than you can kill a mountain or water.  It's just that while you study, you become blind to the life or soul of it for a while.

Once you've mastered those distracting elements of story, the story becomes available to you again.  They will no longer distract you.

However, before you can actually see the story again, you have to do one more thing:

You have to let go.

That's the thing that will bring the magic back.

The only reason you can't see the story is that you trained yourself to be compulsive and see every error, every device, every trick.

So the last lesson, is to master yourself, and your need to correct everything.  You need to train yourself to see the story in spite of the errors.  You have to let go of your acquired need to correct those errors. 

When you have mastered yourself to the point where you can mark an error or not as you choose, then you will be able to see the mountain again.

See you in the funny papers.

Challenge Update - Progress If You Squint

The past week made me feel like a failure, because Life got in my way.

Until I realized that, even if I can't do 5000 words a day unless I actually have the day to myself, I have been doing 2000 words a day, even with Life dancing a rumba on my head. (No, wait, that was the cat dancing on my head.  Life was trying to dance with me, and kept going for the dip when I wasn't prepared...)

The Xtreme Outlning experiment has indeed made that 2k level of writing an easy, low-key task -- something it has never been before.  Two thousand words used to be something I had to work at.  Now it isn't.

It's actually easy enough that I mainly have to worry about forgetting, because it leaves time and energy for other things.  And you know how I am about Other Things. 

I don't think, however, that I'm going to get the book quite done this month. All the same, it seems like a really fruitful experiment. I'll sum up more of what I learned end of next week.

Audio Blog Post Coming Up!

A part of my problem with the current project -- doing the romantic suspense stories under a pen name -- is that it is no longer shiny.  I am still highly motivated on this book, but I don't know if the motivation will last for three books in one go.  Audio is calling to me again.  Other series are also calling.  (Also, the covers for the romantic suspense books are calling, even if I don't feel like writing them all right now.)

Since I've been seriously neglecting my second podcast -- the one associated with this blog -- and I had a short, interesting post waiting to be published, so I decided to record it. this morning.  It went swimmingly, editing and all.  (Well, it was only 3-4 minutes.)  The sound quality is much improved over the previous episodes, so I had to redo the opening and closing as well.

(Have I mentioned that I love my Shure SM58 microphone?  I recorded this while the computer was running and the cat was snoring withing 3 feet of where I was working.)

I'll be posting that later tonight (as a text post, as well as audio).

As a teaser I will post a little music video of a song that refers to the same Zen principle that my post will refer to.  Only my post should be more clear as to what I'm talking about.  (Which is readers just read a story, then when you learn to write, you lose your ability to enjoy reading... then when you master your skills, you enjoy reading again. i.e. First there is a story, then there is no story, then there is....)

This is a song by Donovan, a very hippy sort of singer from the sixties, who I grew up with.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Spine Poetry - DVD Edition

There's a meme going around called "Book Spine Poetry" -- you stack books so that their titles create a poem.

I started to go hunting among my books, but I spotted a couple of titles among my DVDs that seemed ripe, so I went after that instead:

I Wanna Hold Your Hand,
Queen Margot.
Shall We Dance
In The Heat of the Night?

This is fun. I might make this a regular feature....

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Return to/of the Challenge - Slow Going

So I was very productive in my week off the challenge. However the kerfuffle expanded (as kerfuffle is wont to do) to take up two more days than I expected.

I got Tuesday's podcast episode in the can. It needs a little tweaking, but not much.  I read the first chapter of The Man Who Did Too Much -- quite a challenge, really, but FUN, and maybe I'll tell you more about that Tuesday or Wednesday after it's posted. (I'm honestly considering reading the whole thing on a podcast.)

I also did a couple of raw recordings of short episodes for the writing podcast of this blog -- but that's for later.

(In the meantime, I hope you caught the previous episode -- "The Bellhound." A somewhat silly contemporary fantasy story about a woman and a not-quite-a-dog.  I think I'm getting better at performing, and I think that episode shows it.)

The 5k a Day Challenge

So I didn't start back until yesterday, and so far I haven't yet got up to 5,000 words in a day's progress.  I got about 3,000 both Saturday and Sunday.  And on Sunday, at least, I worked ALL DAY.

But I am pleased all the same, because I was doing hard and fruitful work: developing character "vibes" -- for want of a better term -- and also filling in some parts that I hadn't hammered out in the outline because I didn't realize they needed hammering out.

My heroine has convinced me to let her keep her sassiness.  "I am sweet.  I am not one of those obnoxious and shallow heroines. I can make people love me, especially when I get into trouble. I have surprises up my sleeve for you."

And she did.  She has a frankness and aplomb that make her work as a suspense heroine without her being tougher than your average damsel.  (She actually is a little tougher than your average damsel, but the toughness doesn't come from knowing how to use nunchuks.)

Not sure if it's a problem if she becomes a "type" I will use a lot. Especially in the voice area of the series.  After all, this is supposed to be a kind of formula series where readers can expect a similar feel from each book.  (She is actually is a variation on the type of heroine I use a lot in my regular fiction. But I think it will be more noticeable in this pen name.)

Writing Across The Whole Story

The other thing I did was start writing bits of end scenes that were problematic in my head.  As I worked them out, I began to discover additional scenes that make the timing and development work better.

I always work across the whole story when I write -- I don't write from beginning to end.  I thought doing the Xtreme Outline would change this, but it didn't.

It enhanced it.

It supercharged it.

Wow Jingies, it's a fabulous experience now.  It's like painting quickly across a canvas, spontaneously, without hesitation, because you can see the whole composition while you work.  You've got a little burnt ochre on your brush so you dab, swash, dab to tie things together before you load up on the blue.

I still still stall out inside the scenes often -- deciding if this is the moment for the heroine to look away or the cop to play it hard or soft -- but there are no squishy blank spots for me to avoid until I figure it out. I do not get stalled between scenes at all.  Never.  I can jump anywhere and get straight to work.

Me likes it muchly.

I just hope the pace picks up once I get these odd scenes nailed down.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Update - Best Laid Plans, and all that

I'm sure you're waiting with bated breath for an update on the Writing It All Fast project.  It started well (more below) but an accelerating series of stumbling blocks has caused me to change the schedule.

Problem the First: I very much want to try this "write a novel in 15 days" thing, so I don't want to do half days to keep it going.  I'd rather take days off as a break -- but not more than two days off in a week.  So I've decided that postponement is better than muddling through. (I think I can restart Thursday.)

Problem the Second: I suddenly realized that I have way more going on this week than I meant to.  Most of the individual items aren't enough to throw off the writing day -- but I figured out they are doubling up on me.  But I realized that if I rescheduled a few things so that I can fill those days with kerfuffle -- in particular the podcast for next week -- I will be clear for about two weeks.  Sort of.  Maybe.  (Best laid plans can oft gang agley.)

Problem the Third (and perhaps most important): I have discovered an intermediary -- and necessary -- step between the "Xtreme Oultining" and the "Write Like The Wind" stages.  Specifically, it's about finding the voice of the story.  I am glad I chose this book to go first, because it requires a voice that doesn't come naturally to me, therefore, it made it fully obvious what I need to do.

The upshot is, until Thursday, I plan to visit doctors and deal with repair guys and go out of town, and record and edit most of next week's podcast ... and also work on the voice of this story.

Progress Report - Stumbling Over Voice

Day 0

So Friday's launch actually went pretty well. In the morning, as I expected, I finished up the outline. I would still like to do a little work on the end, but I think that's reasonable to put off until I have this half written.

Went to Avengers: Age of Ultron.  It was fab.  Not perfect, and not better than any other Marvel Movie ever made, but I think we've reached the density of story here where it's more important to tell the story than to make bigger things blow up or have heftier smashing.  The standard action comic movie is pretty much at max "smash" level now.  As you expect with a Whedon movie, there are some WONDERFUL small payoff twists that are just utter delights.  These are sprinkled in with the larger twists that we know will be there.

Then, in the evening I settled in to write at least 2000 words to get the story going.

And I did.  I wrote 2400 words actually.

They weren't utter dreck either.

And yet....

It did not sparkle where it needed to sparkle.  The best stuff was the stuff that didn't fit the tone of the story.  The opening paragraph came off a little 'hard-boiled' -- Chandleresque description.  Then other elements were "This happened, then this happened" prose.

But those things are fixable. All stories are awkward getting out of the gate.  A bigger problem was that the writing went very slow -- and the whole point of this exercise was to speed up the process.  The problem went back to voice -- I could see what was happening, and didn't stumble over details or have trouble making decisions, but there was no voice in my head telling me how to translate that into words.

I figured that would fix itself as I sank into the story.

But then over night I started redoing that opening page in my head, and I realized that maybe this needed a first person narrator.  I should pitch what I did the day before and start over.

Day 1

Saturday went way better.  I hit 5400 words without breaking a sweat.  I kinda wanted to go for 6k, since I was going over the same ground for part if it, but that didn't happen.  And I wrote fast, until I hit one critical moment, when I started writing sideways.  I couldn't get the prose through the door.  I kept moving, kept trying, but I was doing what Dean Wesley Smith calls "walking to the story."  Just describing the mundane things that the characters were doing to keep momentum while I tried to get the story to continue.

Problem: I don't do regular romance.  I have never written an ordinary everywoman who is attracted to a cute guy just because he's a cute guy.  And because she's not looking for romance and the story pulls her away from that attraction.... I could not get the story to move on, because the attraction didn't happen.  And the attraction is kind of a foundational element of what happens.

The other problem, and probably a bigger one, is that I don't do "everywoman" very well. But that I learned today....

Day 2

Kerfuffle destroyed half the day, but when I finally sat down I decided to try a scene where the heroine deals with an annoying nemesis.  It was great.  She was sassy.  I was hitting my groove. And then I realized, this is not the heroine that lives in this story.

She might be that heroine's big sister. She might be the person the heroine wants to be, or imagines she is secretly, but honestly, I don't think so.  Or to put it in Avengers-speak: she is not Tony Stark.  She might be Captain America. She might even be Agent Coulson, in the earlier pre-death-and-reserrection iteration.

That's the thing about Classic Suspense.  At her very core, the main character is ordinary -- and any greatness that seeps out needs to come from soul of ordinariness.

And this overlaps with the classic romantic heroine -- the kind who may have resources, but she still needs a hero. The classic suspense hero isn't someone who defeats the bad guys so much as holds them off until the cavalry gets its act together. Because it's not his job to be a hero -- he's filling in because somebody has to. And I think it's reasonable for that to apply to a romance heroine.

I tend to write proactive, independent people.  But I don't think all characters need to be that way.  There are perfectly lovely helpless people who also have gumption.  Melanie from Gone With The Wind would be one extreme.  Many 1940s heroines also qualify, even if they don't know how to fight effectively.

And this particular story, imho, needs somebody soft.  And even though I know how to write a soft-but-likeable secondary character, I don't know how to write a soft protagonist...

Well, except for one -- Mick McKee is a kind of soft protagonist.  He may be a gunslinger, but he also makes a decent damsel in distress.

This heroine might end up being a female Mick.  But,this week, while I deal with all this kerfuffle, I'm going to be auditioning some 1940's style heroines (and others) and see if I can come up with not only a good sense of this character, but the range of characteristics that I find appealing in a modern setting -- for future reference.  And I may talk about that in a future post.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, May 1, 2015

April Wrap Up - So Far So Good

Today ends April, and the April Challenge of writing outlines.

I did not do as much as I had hoped: I had wanted to do two "Xtreme Outlines" and get some progress on a third. However, as expected "Stuff" happened, so I didn't get the second and third done. (Though I made some progress.)

So here is the official progress count:

On Covet Thy Neighbor -- I am this close to actually being completely done on it.  I have a space near the end where I tore out all the threads and haven't quite got them woven together again.   I plan to play around with it tomorrow morning (Friday) before I go see the Avenger's movie.  But I think I am close enough, overall, to start writing on it tomorrow night after the movie.  I am just going to do a couple of sprints, to see how far I can get in timed combat... er, timed writing sessions.

On In Flight -- That one had a whole lot of material already written (at least half, probably more) and all I really did was mentally review the story, from memory, so I could get an idea of what to pull apart. I re-outlined about half the story, but not with full scene beats. (More to a level 2.0.)

 On Death of a Plain Girl -- I, uh, didn't even crack open the document.

 One of the things I've discovered is that outlining really is telling a story.  It is almost exactly like any writing.    I get stuck on the same things I would have while writing, but it's much less frustrating, and overall saves time, even though it takes longer than I expect it to.

But I remind myself that this is all in addition to some of my other projects.  So overall, pretty good.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

May Writing Challenge - Write a Book in 2-ish Weeks

I am scrambling to wrap up the outline on Covet Thy Neighbor, but it's actually ready enough that it probably won't slow me down. Still, because I am challenging myself to write a book so fast, I want to get every bit of work out of the way possible first.

I'll update on the overall progress of the April Outlining Challenge tomorrow. (Summary: didn't quite do what I wanted, but managed what I needed.)  I'm posting this ahead of that, because I want to give people warning about doing their own challenges.

The Challenge To You (as always): Find the thing you most want to actually accomplish this month, and announce it.

 It doesn't have to be ambitious or new or anything. Just look at all the writing tasks you have and pick something to put the priority on for the month.  Easy Peasy.

The Challenge to Me: Write the novel I just outlined in a couple of weeks

I am under the foolish impression that I don't have too much on my plate for the first 2-3 weeks of May.  This in spite of the fact that May starts with the opening of the next Avengers movie.  Also I have a couple of appointments that may take up time (one of which is an eye appointment, so I may not be able to work for a while after it either).

Ha!  I say to these obstacles.  Ha ha ha!

The challenge to write this isn't actually in quite two weeks. The challenge is to see if using this outline allows me to write at least 5000 words a day, on ordinary days.  I expect to take a few days off in there.  But a 60,000 word novel at 5k a day, should take, what, 12 days?  Is my math faulty or is that so?  That's less than three work weeks.  Less than two if I work weekends.

I don't, however, know if this is a 60k novel.  I think it is, but I'm not sure.

And I don't know if the level of planning I've done on the outline will allow me to write 5k a day -- or maybe even more -- from start to end.  I think it will, but I'm not sure.

I also don't know if the detailed outline will actually be finished, to my satisfaction, on Thursday night.  Therefore, Friday is a flex day.  If the outline isn't quite ready by the time I get home from the movies and dinner, I'll work on it that night and start the writing on Saturday.

To The Future and Beyond!

My overall fiendish plan is to write three short novels this way (the three "game generated" stories I was outlining this month).  Do not publish any until I'm done with all three.  Then do editing, cover, audiobook, and maybe a print version (the print version is optional) and publish them this fall, maybe as a group, or maybe a few weeks apart.

Under a pseudonym.

Which will be a pen name I chose for the typographic possibilities.  (Something involving the initials V and A, most likely.)  The pen name won't be a secret, just an identifier for a series which should be very consistent.

The other part of my fiendish plan is to see if I like the method, and if it works for me, to use it for my regular books under my own name.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Xtreme Outline Project - Chapter 1 Sample

Got work to do on the podcast, but I thought I'd give a quick little update since the month is zipping by fast:

Very good progress on Covet Thy Neighbor. Had to tear out and redo earlier passages as the end developed -- exactly as expected.  This, of course, left a couple of messy or jumpy places in the notes, so I have decided that as the last pass, I need to type through the whole outline.

The numbers for the status are:
  • Act 1: 4.0
  • Act 2: 4.0
  • Act 3: 3.7
  • Act 4: 3.2

(The scale is 1-4, with 4 being that all the scenes have their beats sorted out.  As described here.)

I'm doing it in the form of a "long pitch" -- the opposite of an elevator pitch -- where you tell the whole story in detail.  So I thought I'd give you the Xtreme Outline for the first chapter:

Chapter 1

Scene 1.) Amy driving to her new job. She's got her whole life packed in the car, except for a few things of her mother's which are in storage.  A summer of writing in a beautiful location -- all thanks to a job helping an elderly man write his memoirs.

She is almost there, when she sees an accident developing ahead. Someone passes her, going too fast, at the top of a hill, and can't stop when a car pulls out of a blind corner at the bottom.  The truck coming behind Amy is also going too fast, Amy can't quite stop, so she slows as much as she can and swerves into an empty gravel parking lot near the corner.  She hears the truck run into the accident.  She is shaken, and fumbles for her phone, but others have already come to help.

She is in the weed strewn lot of an abandoned restaurant (which is right on the corner) but there is another restaurant right next door. There is a big sign on the corner directing customers to the "live" restaurant - Fedler's Home Cooking and Quick Stop.

She leaves a note on her car for the police, saying that: she is a witness, but she felt sick so she has gone into the restaurant.

Scene 2.) Inside she gets sympathy from the staff and takes a seat near the front.  Has some soup and hot rolls.  Comfort food. They may give her more than she orders.  (Some discussion overheard among staff as to whether to send out something the people at the accident.  Fedler would approve -- good for the restaurant's rep -- but Mrs. F might object, and she's the one in charge while Felder is off working on preparations for the town shindig.)

Amy asks about how to find Topline Road, and the waitress comments about how Mr. Fedler lives up there, does she know him?  Or is she there to visit the Blackwells?  When Amy gives Adam's name, the waitress reacts with a little upper midwest condescension.  Oh, Adam?  Oh, he's a sweet old guy.  Yah.  Well, you know, one of those creative types.  Amy reads between the lines.  Adam, her new boss, is known to be gay. But she already knew that.

Scene 3.) Before the waitress can give directions, the chief of police arrives.  A woman in her 40's.  Getting a little broad in the middle.  She's friendly, but it's that "evaluating the witness" kind of friendliness: asking about where Amy was headed, how fast she was going, whether she was wearing her seat belt.  Plodding, methodical, but also calming.

Part of the calming is asking her about what she's doing. Maybe asking about Adam and the job.  (The waitress is hovering, and definitely overhears Amy describe herself as a writer, come to write something about Adam.)  Amy assumes the cop knows Adam. "I suppose everybody knows everybody around here," says Amy.  The cop, however, demurs. She hasn't been around long enough to know everybody, but she knows places.

At the end, the cop gives Amy directions on how to get to Topline Road.  Maybe cap it off with waitress asking about whether she's a reporter or something.  Amy is a little shy of what to say, so she doesn't actually answer that. Just says, "well, I write books."

I would normally have used an outline that says:

Driving to her new job, she nearly has accident like the one in the back story.  She pauses to settle her nerves and asks directions at a gas station. (Good place for more background on the job.)

And that's it.  Then later I might realize that this is actually the ideal place to introduce some locations and characters, and also seed the fact that gossip will spread the word about her arrival.

And because I'd only discover this after having written quite a lot, I'd have to toss out or seriously revise whole large sections of scene, or just muddle through with a less effective introduction. (Which is never as viable as it seems.)

Plus in this case, it wasn't until I was nearly done with the story that I realized I had to find a place to introduce the cop character earlier.  This opening is the perfect place.  Furthermore, I have a very good idea, now after developing the whole story, where I want certain facts to come out. Therefore I know what to hold back on, what to lay the groundwork for.

Did this process take the fun out of the scene?

No way.  It only makes me look forward to it more.  I have lots of rich and interesting and resonant details to play with and some lovely characters to illuminate, along with their attitudes and styles.

And I get to see Amy discover these people, and they discover her.  That brings a lot of freshness to everything.

So, I'm looking forward to next month when I write this.

In the meantime, I may once again be slightly late in posting the podcast -- early afternoon rather than early morning -- but we'll see. I'm having fun editing the sound, and I did the story music myself.  You'll hear from me about this on Tuesday.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Xtreme Outlining Update -- Artistry

Just got the first outline -- for Covet Thy Neighbor -- to complete (if not actually done).  Of my four stage outline meter that I talked about earlier, all acts are at 3.5 or more.  Since the challenge goes to the end of the month, I'm going to top off my notes tonight and give it a little rest while I work on other outlines. 

Now, at this point, the story is more thoroughly plotted than any outline I've ever done, but I haven't gone far enough for the things I hope to do with it.

And one of those things I hope to accomplish is something I haven't mentioned yet -- mainly because it was too ironic for words:


Seriously, I'm writing these stories generated by random rolls of dice from a story generator which uses basic concepts from an outdated, excessively formulaic genre.

And I'm looking for artistry out of that -- I'm looking to improve my level of artistry from it?

Uh... yeah.

I happen to be very fond of irony.

There is a kind of artistry that comes from excessive planning.  It's certainly not the only kind of artistry.  And not necessarily the most effective kind of artistry -- very often it's the kind of artistry that is only noticed and appreciated by aficionados (mainly other artists). It can even actively interfere with the appreciation of others.

But as an aficionado myself, I happen to love certain flavors of artistry.  When I talk about the storytelling techniques of various movies -- characters, plot structures -- that's really what I'm talking about.  Because, compared to books, movies are excessively planned.  Even the most improvisational directors (like Robert Altman, who I'll talk about later) have to do a crap-load of planning to get to the improvisational parts.

I assumed that my love of this comes from movies, and maybe also from mystery, especially Agatha Christie, who (whether she planned or not) displayed incredible artistry of this certain type I love.

But I realized today that this also comes from the fact that I started my college career doing animation.  Animation is this very very weird thing where you have to plan out every single solitary frame -- and everything IN the frame even the incidental boring things like clouds and trees and grass -- ahead of time.  You don't have much flexibility on that.
And then, after it's all planned out, you have a very long long long long, slow, repetitious process of actually bringing your vision to life. (Even doing it the easy way, with pixelation rather than drawing, you move your object, click, move it again, click, move it again, click, move it again, click.)

The result of this strange process where you plan everything meticulously, and then get really really really bored carrying the plan out... is  a kind of mad creativity in the details. You have all this time, and you know the story inside out, and you start to come up with odd little details to enrich the story.  Just to save yourself from utter boredom.  A little mouse hanging out in the background, reacting to what the front characters are saying and doing.  Odd things to be written on the sign on the wall.

Now days, we tend to call some of this kind of thing "Easter eggs" -- because they are little treats and meta references hidden in the story.

But there's really more to it than Easter eggs and creative details.  There is also a lot of substance to the artistry that comes from looking deeply at the story.

For instance, to the mystery writer, Easter eggs are called "clues."

Clues, Themes and Foreshadowing

As mystery writers, and readers, we tend to think of clues as evidence. And it takes a lot of planning to do it right, because a mystery is more than just clues and suspense.  It's a game between the writer and the reader.  Everything is a clue to a reader -- because they don't know what is relevant and what isn't.  Furthermore, because it is a game between reader and writer, there is a whole other level of clues -- ones that have nothing to do with the game between the killer and detective.

If you are a mystery reader (or watcher) you have undoubtedly picked the killer based on non-evidence clues before.  "I know it's the gardener because he has a perfect alibi and he's the only non-obvious suspect who appeared in the first act."

If your reader can pick the killer without actually knowing the story, that's not good -- that's NOT artistry.  But taking the time to handle those things -- understanding how your reader reacts to them and using them to lead the reader further astray, that is artistry. Especially if you can make them believe they already know, but still promise them enough surprise to keep them reading.

Foreshadowing is a kind of clue too, but instead of being about "whodunnit" it's about where the story is going.  And it's, in some ways, the opposite of the hidden clue, because the purpose is to create anticipation -- to give the reader a glimpse of where the story is going, so they can rub their hands together with glee.

It is, in a sense, a promise.

I'll use for an example something from Alfred Hitchcock -- a true master of artistry.

At the beginning of North By Northwest, we meet ad-man Roger Thornhill.  His life is completely ordinary for a Manhattan advertising executive and he's in his element, and master of his universe.  What we see of him is clearly all very Usual for him.  But as he walks into a hotel lobby, on his way to an ordinary lunch meeting, what is the music played by the string quartet?

It's a Most Unusual Day.

Now, if you don't know the song, or you are paying attention to Cary Grant's incredible tan and didn't notice it... it doesn't matter. You can watch this movie with complete enjoyment without missing a thing.

But the fact that it's there is delightful.  If you notice, you get a zing of anticipation.  And if you didn't notice it the first time, it's one of MANY things in that movie that will make watching it again and again an always new and fresh experience.

And that, maybe, is my first definition of "artistry" -- it's something extra. Something the story can do without, but it raises the story to another level when it's there.

And it's not always small details. Sometimes it's how the story is put together.  Structure and plot, in and of themselves, aren't something "extra."  They are essential basics.  But how you structure various elements of a story can change the underlying meaning of it -- the theme -- and give it depth. 

The Truth Behind Zenda

Both the book and movies of The Prisoner of Zenda uses character structure to give the story more meaning. The structure behind the good guys and the bad guys are mirrored so that they contrast with one another.  There is the unworthy legitimate king and his rival, and each has a more worthy -- and romantic -- champion to do the dirty work.

This all by itself highlights part of the meaning of the story: ideals vs reality.  Those unworthy leaders are  exactly like what we're stuck with in real life.  They are what's wrong with real life -- they are dissipated or corrupt, and fuzzy on right and wrong.  Also, boring.

The sidekicks, however, who are both barred form the throne, are what we like to think of as a worthy leader.  THey are smart, and quick and skilled and competent.  And they are not wishy washy.  They act out for us what good and evil really are. 

And the women on each side of this mirror give us even more on that front. In some ways, they are tests of worthiness.  The hero loves the princess, and bows to her will.  She loves him but chooses to be responsible (as he has) and take her place as a ruler of her people, even if it means marrying king she doesn't much like.  On the other side, the woman in black loves the lead villain, but he takes her for granted (a sign of his unworthiness).  The secondary villain, on the other hand, appreciates her fully -- flirts and courts -- but he is a psychopath, and she wants nothing to do with him.  In the end, he tries to rape her (more obvious in the book than the movie). Proof he is a villain and not a gentleman, as he puts it.  He takes what he wants, while the hero respects and protects the rights of others.

Now it might seem that this is not mere artistry, bu the story has been remade a million times -- often without this character structure.  The story still works.  I means something different, and imho, often means less -- it's just a love story, and not as much about our longing for reality to change, or about what makes worthiness.

The characters, in that case, become clues to what the story is about, just as the gardener's alibi (or lack of one) is a clue to his part in the mystery, and the music playing in the background is a guidepost to your anticipation (or an Easter egg to be enjoyed).

All Writers Use This Artistry

All writers put some of this stuff in there -- even if it isn't actually necessary.  We all want our readers to feel anticipation, follow clues and for the story to have some meaning that makes it matter.  But most stories stop at "enough."  Why waste the time and effort?  Especially if the audience isn't even going to notice a lot of it?

This is a lesson learned by Levinson and Link - the creators of Columbo and the Ellery Queen tv show and Murder, She Wrote.  They put a ton of extra artistry into Ellery Queen, and it only lasted one season.  They slacked off on Murder, She Wrote and it went on for years and years.

But still... I don't have a lot of interest in rewatching Murder She Wrote, but I own the DVD of Ellery Queen.

Some kinds of stories do this sort of layering more deeply than others (just as some stories have more action or more dialog or more adverbs or more sex).

And... I love this kind of storytelling. Give me a well woven, deeply layered story of clues and deceptions, and I'll put up with a lot of other flaws.

I started this experiment in "xtreme" outlining to help me deal with certain frustrations in writing.  I realize that many of those frustrations are related to the fact that I want to go further with the weaving and layering within my stories.

Even in what otherwise is pretty formulaic fiction.

And I don't even expect that this will turn those stories into classics, either.  I'm inspired by HItchcock's virtuosity at this -- but his movies are classics for more than that: they also had his chutzpah and his amazing sense of the dramatic.  At the same time, Frances and Richard Lockridge books are less classic -- they are more dated, more formulaic -- but they still give me a great deal of pleasure to re-read, because of some of this artistry. (Maybe not the level of Hitch, but still, it's fun to watch the game played between writer and reader.)

I don't know if the outlining is going to actually make me better at this, but I can already see that it makes what I'm doing with it now much easier.  I can lay in another thread without rewriting anything.  I can push and tug and get it right.  I can lay the Easter eggs in there before I start the writing.

And... well, I'm going to cut off here, but I was thinking about Robert Altman, who, after all the planning and work -- as much as any director -- still used a ton of improvisation when the time came to film the story.  This is what I hope the writing will be like.  But I'm going to start that next month, so perhaps I'll tell you about his techniques then.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Quick Update

Things did not go well this week.  We had to euthanize an elderly cat this weekend, and that kinda took the wind out of my sails.

I did manage to get the podcast up. (Give it a listen!  I read an excerpt from Kyra Halland's Beneath the Canyons -- a mix of fantasy and western.)

Since my progress on everything else was hit or miss, I decided not to write an update. I was going to talk about a writing discovery I made.  However, it turned out to be more interesting and complex than I thought, so I'm saving it for a rewrite.

I was looking through old pulp children's books at Project Gutenberg.  Precursors and competitors to syndicated series like Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys.  I have a hate/love relationship with these books.  As a kid I really wanted to love these books (including Nancy Drew) but I found that I had to be truly bored before I could abide them at all.

And last night I realized why. It has to do with banality.  And that's a problem I have with a lot of modern books in my favorite genres as well. I happened across and opening for a book which gave me some insight into what I'm looking for, what I did right in one book, and what I might consciously want to do with some future books.

But that's for later.

For now, I'll just say farewell to Miss Rita, who waltzed into our lives about seventeen years ago, became fat and sassy and loud. (Very very loud.)  But in later years she shrunk down to a fragile pile of bones.  Let's hope she's somewhere that's like the words of a song Garrison Keillor wrote:  Where the mice are slow and the birds fly low, and cream runs in a fountain.

See you in the funny papers.