Archive for ‘Writing’

Writing Writing

Here Comes November

October 11th, 2012
And we all know what that means...

My current novel is stalled, overwhelmed by the domestic upheaval caused by the loss and reconstruction of a kitchen, a work crunch, and, coming off the crunch, spending too much time playing a computer game that has grabbed my brain.

November is drop-everything-and-write-something month. The timing is either perfect (regaining the write-every-day habit) or terrible (another thing between me and finishing Munchies). I’m taking the optimistic view; at this time last year I was seriously considering bagging NaNoWriMo. It seemed more like a chore than an opportunity, and let’s face it, although there are few out there with longer winning streaks at NaNoWriMo than mine, ultimately it’s not that important.

This year, though, I’m really looking forward to it. I need to get back in the habit, and I need to loosen the hell up and just let the words flow. I need November.

My employer has generously added three paid days off in November, making Thanksgiving holiday an entire week. It’s tempting to travel that week, but really all I want is to bunker in our (hopefully by then) reconstructed house, without construction guys (however friendly) visiting every day, without planning how to shift all the stuff from one room to the next, without having rain change dinner plans, because right now our stove is the barbecue in the backyard. Note that all these inconveniences affect my sweetie much more than they do me, so I can only imagine how frazzled she’s feeling. So, probably ‘no’ to the traveling.

Which means, instead, perfect timing for going 100% literary. Getting my head into story-space, developing characters and maybe even coming up with a plot. And then throwing the fruits of November away and taking that momentum back to Munchies.

I have two ideas tickling my brain, both extensions of little pieces I’ve posted here. Two story seeds. The first is a more developed idea, a solid foundation for an action-adventure yarn on an interesting world. The second is little more than a character sketch, but in my head she could be a really empathetic character. While I have pretty much no idea how the story would go, I do know the final decision she must make.

Both have room for compelling bad guys, which is always a plus. They both have world-building; the first is on a planet entirely unlike our own, while the second would present our world through different eyes. One is about survival and doing what is right, the other is about identity and the nature of good and evil.

Dang! I can’t decide. I don’t have to make up my mind just yet, and it’s a nice problem to have. Last time I had this problem I ended up choosing option three, something that hit me just as October faded into November.

But I’m curious what you guys think. Did either of those two snippets resonate? I read the ‘Gravity’ bit now and mostly see missed opportunities, but the soul of the thing is there.

Writing Writing

22 Rules of Storytelling According to Emma Coates

September 27th, 2012
A few nuggets to think about when building a story.

Emma Coates is a storyboard artist for Pixar. This is a list of storytelling rules and tips she has shared with the world via Twitter. Some of them may seem pretty obvious, but when you take the list as a whole, chances are you’re going to find ways to make your current creative project better.

Here we go!

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

I think the one that I have to watch for more than any other (that’s not to diminish any of them) is #18. I can fuss over a stretch of prose indefinitely. One of the reasons I created Jer’s Novel Writer was to easily mark places where I felt the need to fuss, so I could fuss over them later, and get on with writing. The confidence that I can fuss later allows me to move on.

I also like #9, about making a list of what would not happen next.

I came across this list via a commercial email that credited io9 for collecting the tweets. io9 doesn’t credit anyone else for doing it, so we’ll give them a hearty thumbs-up for the actual labor required to make this list happen.

Writing Writing

Noises Off!

July 20th, 2012
A good movie, with spectacular writing.

I don’t venture into the world of cinema criticism in these muddled pages very often, but a couple of days ago I saw a movie that had me laughing hard even as my brain was expanding outwards at the speed of light from the brilliance of the writing.

It all started when I was advised that a particular scene (or series of scenes) in Munchies needs to be a “Noises Off!” scene. And what is that? It’s a bedroom farce, one of those comedy devices where a small space is filled with a lot of people who don’t know the others are there, going in and out with crackerjack timing. Hilarity ensues. Mel Brooks has made a career off these things. I confessed I had not seen Noises Off!. My peers resolved to remedy that situation.

“Look at all the doors,” someone near me said at the start of the play-within-a-movie. Indeed, there were a lot of doors, and when things are going according to script one door will open the instant another closes, as people come and go through the central room in a spiral of confusion that ends, of course, with ridiculous calamity. We are first introduced to the actors and the play during a very shaky dress rehearsal, and we learn the play (or at least act one), and appreciate the crackling timing of the cast — made especially clear when the timing breaks down.

“Leave the sardines, take the newspaper!” Bellows director Michael Caine at a weary Carol Burnett. Does it really matter that much? I asked myself. But yes it did. The movement of every piece is critical as sardines appear and disappear, suitcases vanish, and confusion escalates. “But why do I take the groceries into the study?” asks an insecure Christopher Reeve. The correct answer is, of course, “it’s a farce and sometimes you skate fast over stuff like that.” But that doesn’t satisfy our actor, and his director must invent some other preposterous motivation. Rehearsal continues.

So by the end of the film’s act one we’ve met a complicated bedroom farce that’s pretty funny on its own. That’s what I’m shooting for in Munchies (substituting lawyer’s office for bedroom, and honestly I don’t know if I have enough moving parts). But here’s where Noises Off really launches. The cast has a lot of drama going on between them offstage, and during one performance the jealousies and misunderstandings lead to utter chaos backstage. There is a second farce, far more complex, with (almost) no dialog at all, since they must be silent backstage. Because they can’t speak, physical situations are misinterpreted and things just get worse. Throw in a bottle of whiskey, a fire axe, bouquets of flowers of steadily diminishing size, and a cactus, all moving from person to person in a tightly choreographed silent movie that matches the beats of the play onstage, overlapping and constrained by which of the many doors people have to go through at a given time, and on top of that create characters that are funny and engaging, and you’ve got my undying admiration.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the next performance doesn’t go as well as that one did. We have a third farce, funny for its complete departure from the original.

The movie was adapted from a stage production, and I’d really like to see that. I think my head would explode watching that whole thing performed in a single take.

Which reminds me that the editor of this film had no room for error, either.

If you’re one of the few English-speaking inhabitants of our fair world who has not seen this flick, give it a go! If you’ve seen it before, you might enjoy it a second time, just to appreciate the brilliant layering of farce upon farce.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a Colombian Emerald and Diamond Ring in 18kt yellow gold), I get a kickback.

Writing Writing

Yes, I’m Still Alive

July 13th, 2012
And kickin'!

Haven’t been posting here for a bit, but it’s for the best possible reason. I’m writing!

I’ve been waking up with my head so filled with my story that I haven’t had the space to record here how much fun I’m having with the Kansas Bunch this summer. I’ll try to catch up with tales of my road trip with the Round Mound of Hound before I forget the little details, but don’t hold your breath.

back to work!

Writing Writing

Pretty Sure the Cyberspace Open is Dead

June 2nd, 2012

It’s too bad; the contest had a lot going for it. One of those things that worked great in theory but not in practice. It’s easy to calculate the cash the organizers reaped (rather a lot), but even though the contest was about meeting deadlines, they could not hit their own.

I once ran a contest at, and as with Cyberspace Open, I promised a thoughtful review to each entrant. Let me tell you, that’s not trivial. Though my reviews were much more detailed, I still only had to do a few of them, and it took forever.

I bitched about the contest even as I participated, but I’m sorry to see it gone. It really was a fun challenge that helped me develop as a writer.

Cyberspace Open had a good run for a few years, before getting crushed by its own popularity. The organizers then added a new marketing element—they got mediocre actors to read the top three entries and let the public vote. Perhaps the contest was already doomed, but that killed it sure. That, and a failure to enforce adherence to their own rules.

I miss the contest. It was right for me. Should it come back, I’d jump in in a heartbeat.

Writing Writing

Submissions Needed!

April 18th, 2012

NOTE: Whoops! Here I thought I was helping out, but my call for submissions was actually after the deadline, and there’s plenty of good stuff on deck. Sorry about that.

I kept the original episode for posterity, but I’m adding descriptions of the upcoming issues, for those poetically and photographically inclined. If you’re inspired by the current theme, don’t let that stop you from writing about it.

The original episode:

The Editor-in-Chief of The Poetic Pinup Revue has informed me that she needs poetry and flash fiction. If you’re not familiar with the magazine, The Revue is a hefty, glossy magazine with awesome photography paired with sweet poetry in a way that words and images enhance each other.

The current Revue

The current Revue: Love, Lust, and Longing

Last issue, Harlean (who is a fiction) had a glut of poetry but had to beat the bushes for high-quality photos. This time around the photo department is doing well, but quality poetry that’s on-theme is needed.

The mathematics of Imagination

Next up: The Mathematics of Imagination

The theme this issue is “The Mathematics of Imagination,” which, if you ask me, is pretty cool. These days creativity and technology are pals, but through history math has influenced art (see also, ‘vanishing point’).

I once co-wrote a poem that rhymed ‘carrot’, with ‘pi, r, and square it’, though credit for that rhyme goes to my co-author on that epic effort. (Actually, thinking back, it may be that Edgar Pildrot (who is a fiction) was responsible for the entire work. I get no credit, but you have to admit it’s a pretty sweet rhyme.) I have not submitted that work for the magazine, but it just goes to show that you can put math into poetry.

What inspires you? The curve of the nautilus shell? Whether she loves you or loves you not? What happens in the space between the pixels? Think about it. Write about it, and let us know.

Post-Whoops! addendum:

The time has already passed for mathemagical submissions, but if the above inspired you and you write about it you can always put it in the comments here. In the meantime, I encourage you to ponder the themes for upcoming issues:

Bridges and Things that Burn Them

Bridges and Things that Burn Them

Bridges and Things that Burn Them. I really like this theme, I really like the cover, and the whole issue is shaping up to be a blockbuster. One more beer in me and I’m going to start writing something.

Contumulation & Carrying On

Contumulation & Carrying On

It’s all about what comes after. I’ve seen some of the photos slated for this issue, and all I can say is, “dang”.

Writing Writing

A Quick Science Question

January 23rd, 2012
Thanks in advance!

How would Magellan measure latitude if the sky were filled with clouds all the time? I’m thinking of measuring Coriolis effect, but I’d hate to dive into that if there’s a more obvious answer.

Writing Writing

Introducing the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam Scoreboard

January 14th, 2012
Introducing a new way to track quality in the fantasy genre.

If you read fantasy novels, you already know that there are a lot of writers who aren’t able or can’t be bothered to create settings and characters of their own. Perhaps even more annoying are the ones who just take the same old tired characters and put some transparent and irrelevant ‘twist’ on them. It doesn’t take a detective to unmask these efforts. In fact, it only takes a few questions. It’s a bonus if the questions are funny.

In the top section of the sidebar over there you will now find a link called Fantasy Novelist’s Exam Scoreboard. If you’ve been around a while you’ve heard me refer to the exam before; it’s a list of questions all aspiring fantasy novelists should ask before they get too far writing their epic. It’s a tongue-in-cheek list of seventy-five reasons to drop your project and start over. If you answer ‘yes’ to any question, it’s time to scrap the story.

Alas, there are dozens of stories published every year that do not follow this advice, and are riddled with lazy world-building and tired clichés. The creatures that occupy those worlds are defined in Dungeons and Dragons manuals.

Often as I’m reading these stories I’ve wished that I could have a checklist on hand to tally up the score as I read. Orc – check. Mysterious parentage – check. As the party for the quest (check) assembles, a few stock characters appear (check, check, check). There have even been a couple of stories I’ve read to the end only to see how many more recycled ideas drift through.

Now I have the technology! I can add a story to the database and as I encounter each example of literary laziness I can fire up the iPad or any other handy computer and add to the tally.

And you can, too! I’ve got it mostly set up so other people can add novels to the scoreboard as well. If anyone asks nicely, I’ll get them set up to add their experiences to what promises to be an important database in the world of literature. Or something like that.

As I write this, the only novel in the database is my unfinished fantasy parody, which weighs in at a whopping 17 points (so far). I’ll be adding a couple more titles shortly, and I also intend to integrate the code with Amazon, so the covers and other info will display automatically. That’s going to have to wait for a bit, however.

Anyway, take a look! I’ll probably put up a notification here or with a comment when I add a new novel, and you can watch the score increase as I read. What fun! The questions (the actual creative part of this endeavor) are from here; I just added the buttons.

Writing Writing

Happy November Twoth!

November 2nd, 2011
Also known as "Already behind on my word count day."

November twoth is a big day on the Muddled Calendar, the day I (and tens of thousands of others) wake up and realize we’re already behind our word counts for NaNoWriMo.

In years past part of the tradition has been for me to publish the product of my first night of scribbling here. This year, I’m not going to do that. The product of my first night was more like sketches of three scenes than any sort of coherent narrative. The scenes aren’t even sequential; one is from the first act and two from the second. Alas, the elusive third act remains too ill-defined even to sketch a scene.

So, no excerpt this year. I know you all are devastated at missing out on the prospect of reading a long rough draft of a scene with no hope of ever finding out what happens next. Lost is off the air, after all.

Good luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMo participants, and I’ll see you on the other side of 50K!

Writing Writing

An End? Really?

August 4th, 2011
Yep. Really.

Just a quick note to those who might have been waiting to start reading Allison to make sure there would be an end. I understand completely; I rail consistently about stories with no clear scope yet they expect me to join in and follow every word. And when you throw in my irregular update schedule, all the more reason to not get caught up.

I’m happy to announce that Allison in Anime: White Shadow is wrapped up in a neat little (anime-style-inscrutable) package. It reads like a not-bad first draft; there are plenty of opportunities I see looking back, but overall I feel pretty good about it.

I hope you enjoy.

Writing Writing

Sometimes You See it Coming

July 20th, 2011

Sometimes you see it coming, a special type of melancholy that means it’s time to find the heart of the story. It’s the time to write the scenes that reveal the souls of the participants, and give them the power to change the world.

Even in a comedy characters strive to relieve sadness, to end loneliness. When you touch the sadness, you find the character, from Ann Boleyn to Zapp Brannigan. And even Deek, the stoner mom’s-basement-dweller dropout from life. What’s he hiding from? It’s time to find out. I’m in that place.

Writing Writing

Submitted a Freakin’ Story

June 8th, 2011
And it's about time, too.

Just finished rebuilding the ending to a story and getting it off to a publisher. It has been, I think, six months since I submitted anything, let alone to a pro market. I really like this story but the ending has never been as strong as it is now. I hope.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be getting another story out to an anthology. It’s a story I wasn’t sure would ever find a home, but this might just be its chance.

There’s another very short story I might send over to Piker Press, so they don’t forget me completely, and because it’s fun to share.

Writing Writing

June Pledge

June 1st, 2011

I’m going to write every day this month, dammit.

Writing Writing

Refresher Course

May 29th, 2011

The other night the light of my life was far distant, so I stayed up into the wee hours watching a Japanese cartoon. She’s not a fan of the idiom, so I took the opportunity to grab a few episodes. Heh. A few episodes. I had watched the beginning of the series long before, and all I remembered was that I was confused. This time I closed out the story.

I’m not going to name the show, though if you’ve already seen it, you’ll recognize it.

Pf. Like anyone is gong to read this and then, sometime in the future, while watching a Japanitoon say, “Dammit! Jer spoiled this one!” I shall forge ahead, then, and stop worrying about that stuff. The actual show really isn’t that important. My observations apply to just about every Japanitoon ever created.

The point of my ramble: This particular Japanitamation reminded me of a lot of things I need to take to heart as I lampoon the genre:

  1. People you like can die. No one is too important to take a bullet. The free pass that the main characters get in American dramas is the biggest weakness of the form.
  2. The name of the bad guy must be ridiculous, and western. Meet Mr. Monday Friday. Seriously. Personally I have a lot to learn, coming up with bad guy names. There’s something that holds me back, prevents me from turning up the ridiculometer to eleven. Mr. Monday Friday. Knives. The End of the World. Cumbersome names are quite all right, because…
  3. Mon…day… Fri… day… When you run out of dialog, Just find a key phrase for someone to say in an agonized whisper. Usually the name of another character, but let’s not limit ourselves: Stevo… Jobsu! or hu….mili…ating in…fect…ion

All that notwithstanding, I have to give the cartoon some credit for good writing. There’s a point where a guy is told, “if you go though that door your existence will be erased!” But on the other side of the door is truth, and our boy really wants to know the truth. He makes a decision, and a guy that up until then had been clearly one of the bad guys is redefined. That’s not a trivial storytelling feat. The incident also defines a rule of the universe that is critical to the conclusion of the story. Let’s face it, we’d all like to write a scene like that.

Writing Writing

Cyberspace Open: My Feedback

April 3rd, 2011
Overall a fair assessment.

Although the organizers never sent me my final score and feedback, I was able to go hunt it down on their Web site.

First reaction: My score is higher this time! Hooray!
Second reaction: The average score is higher this time, too. Awww…

Still, I think I moved up in comparison to the average, so that’s nice. The prompt this time was to write dialog with subtext – the characters seem to be talking about one thing, but actually they were discussing something else altogether. My entry is here.

This is the feedback I got:

Very interesting take on the scene prompt. Tons of energy, strong tension level. Good job of putting us on edge and keeping us there. Dialogue could have used a little more punch though, as it really seemed to be the characters talking about the wrong things more so than talking about the right things through subtext. But still, a pretty solid bit of work with great energy.

Overall, I’ll take that. I can see ways to improve the scene now; Mrs. Simms should be there yammering into Helen’s ear about Scooter’s sins just to make her even more frazzled, and to get the conversation onto Scooter’s behavior more naturally. I considered and discarded a couple of lines intended solely to leave absolutely no doubt that it was not Scooter’s behavior that angered Helen, but in the end I thought it was pretty obvious. Reading back now, maybe a line about Scooter running off and getting in trouble would have tied things together nicely without being too overt. Something like “How do I know he won’t be off chasing rabbits when I need him?” after which Jake struggles to apologize for his own misdeeds while keeping the conversation about Scooter. It could have anchored the subtext, and might even have been funny.

Overall, then, I think the criticism is fair, and “Tons of engery” is the kind of phrase I can live with.

The prompt for round two is already out but I’ve only glanced at it. Not getting my score for round one kind of pushed the whole event onto the back burner, and this has been a crazy-busy weekend already. I’ll still take a shot at it, probably pulling characters from Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy to get it done with less time devoted to character development.