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Writing Writing

Oh, Yeah, that NaNoWriMo Thing

December 3rd, 2012
Another win, but success is measured differently.

Welp, it’s December, and that means another NaNoWriMo under my belt. It was pretty obvious early on that my goal was simply getting my butt into a chair and writing every day, rather than entertain any hope of creating something worth reading. I thought it might also be a chance to interact with some like-minded folk here in the South Bay, and I did a little of that, but not much.

There might be a writing group coming out of it, however. I got a few people worked up on the local message board before I vanished from sight. I need to follow up on that.

I averaged 2500 words a day while I vomited up my November novel. The paragraph that took me over 50K was one in which Cliff Brooks fell from an improbable height, bounced once, and lay still. Killing Cliff Brooks is a local tradition. Before his body was even cold I had turned my attention back to Munchies, and a 600-word-per-day productivity.

Last few days, I haven’t been executing on that. Tonight I’m dedicating my hours to the written word, and I’m still not making progress. But as soon as I’m done with this episode, I’m on it. Really.

Writing Writing

Progress Report from the Pits of NaNoWriMo

November 17th, 2012

I had set a goal for myself to cross the fifty-thousand line tomorrow. It’s going to take some serious typing to make that happen. I’m not optimistic. A couple of days ago I told the light of my life that when I crossed the 50K threshold I’d drop this steamer in mid-sentence and get back to what I should be working on.

My pace has slowed the last couple of days, and it’s a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that this is still a steaming pile of verbiage and I should be dedicating myself to words elsewhere. Slowing down means another day or two writing words that no one will ever read. The good news is that I finally wrote a scene that measures up to the opening. It needs to be tightened, but I like it.

If you read the little starter bit I posted some time ago, you will recall a character who is lost and alone, known only as Jane Doe. She has no memory of who she is or how she came to be in the hospital. All she knows is that she’s somehow different than the people around her, although common sense dictates that she’s not all that different.

One thing I surprised myself with was how little of the story I’ve told through her point of view. I think the alien is sometimes best expressed through other’s eyes. By moving the frame of reference she becomes more of an enigma. (I don’t think this applies so much in movies; in film we are always observing from outside.)

A couple of nights ago I grew tired of the blah blah blah as people yapped about what to get at the store tomorrow just in case the spinach wasn’t satisfactory (not really but close enough), and I thought about the key moment of the story, when our strange specimen must make a choice. It turns out she was the architect of her own dislocation, so she could be bait and trap both to kill the Really Bad Guy.

But like all elaborate plans, this one doesn’t work out quite the way is was drawn on the chalkboard, even as she must admit that the Really Bad Guy has some valid points. So the other night as I grew weary of steamy Angel-on-Demon sex (actually, there is none of that, despite my best intentions – and now I think I need to have ADD sex and cut away in the middle) and thought about just how this choice Jane must make would manifest. I got an idea that made me happy (it takes about 60 seconds to fall 14,000 feet) an off I went, writing (at last) a scene I could be proud of.

There’s a pretty major gap in the narrative right now, what with them being imprisoned in a house in a nice suburb of Hoboken one moment and falling to their deaths the next, but that’s how things go sometimes. Oh, yeah, there was a dead body on the floor back in Hoboken.

Now I just have to wrap it up with a sweet metaphor and go back in and add 7000 words of steamy sex (or grocery shopping) and 50K is in the bag. Maybe not by tomorrow, though.

Writing Writing

The Attraction of the Procedural

November 11th, 2012
I have realized that there are writers who get paid to write filler.

There’s a general rule in writing, one that probably should go without saying but it is violated regularly. It’s simply this: Everything you write should advance the plot and build your characters. When I criticize my own writing on this metric (which I should do more often), I chunk things by paragraph. Did that paragraph move the plot AND develop character? No? That paragraph’s not working hard enough then.

If Robert Jordan had had a decent editor or some ability to see his own work objectively, his Wheel of Time series might not have spiraled into unreadable disaster, filled with entire chapters of fluff. As the books got thicker, the number of things that actually happened decreased.

Of course, during NaNoWriMo, that metric is thrown out the window. This is about quantity, not quality. It’s perfectly all right to have non-performing paragraphs in a first draft; that’s what revisions are for. Over the last week and a half, I’ve written a lot of non-performing paragraphs. I’m even giving Jordan a run for his money.

I had no intention of writing a procedural, but it turns out I’m writing a lot of scenes that fall into that category. In a procedural, the author liberally sprinkles long passages through the book that are merely lists of things people did. In my case, the procedures are usually medical. First the doctor did this thing, then that thing, then another thing. It’s all very technical and makes the author sound like an expert, but it doesn’t move the story. It’s filler. Filler that procedural fans may enjoy if done well, but the only thing the story would lack without all that detail is page count.

(I’m pretty sure my long scene in which the doctor inserts a tube into the lung of a pneumonia sufferer is ludicrously inaccurate.)

In my limited exposure to procedurals (mostly on TV), all that stuff is used to make a story fit in the expected size. A novella becomes a novel (with a novella-sized plot), a 30-minute drama becomes a 44-minute drama (with 14 minutes of test tubes and music).

Or, in the case of my NaNoWriMo effort this year, 10% plot, 30% procedures, and 60% aimless drifting and tedious conversations about things not germane to the story. (Some of the conversations are interesting, I think, they just aren’t connected to anything.) Not my best November effort. Not by a long shot.

Writing Writing

Hey! I Know Her!

November 8th, 2012
Yeah, I'm name dropping.

I popped over to the Science Fiction Writers Association site ( because my link to the Turkey City Lexicon was out of date, and there was my pal Kij Johnson right in the banner! A fun way to start the day.

Then I typed Kij into the Goog and after I typed the ‘j’ the second suggestion was ‘kij johnson ponies’ and I had to laugh. That story is messed up. And also a Nebula Winner, so there you go.

Writing Writing

NaNoWriMo Update

November 4th, 2012
Off to a start.

Lately it’s been a tradition for me to post the first batch of words I excrete in pursuit of NaNoWriMo glory. I don’t think I’m going to do that this year. For one thing, there’s already a similar story beginning in these pages (although I rewrote it), and, well, it’s just not gaining traction.

I had decided to do Topstar, a lo-tech adventure on an exotic planet, but at the last moment I switched to Gravity, the story of a woman with no past, who just knows she is not like the people around her. At 11:59 Halloween night, it just resonated better. So off I went. The problem with the latter, however, is that although it’s got one really good character, that’s all it has. I’m ahead on word count, but I’m still circling the plot like a prizefighter who has yet throw a punch. Not so great for the audience. So far I’ve been making up characters and throwing them in there to see if magic happens. Nurse: nope. Team of three doctors: nope, nope, nope. Private investigator: nope. There’s still an outside chance for the quiet and thoughtful latino gang leader, but in the end all hope rests on the Biker Cliché Who is Not What He Seems. Because there’s never been an urban fantasy with that guy before.

Words are flowing, however, at a pretty good rate, and that’s the point of this exercise. Get writing momentum back and turn it on Munchies. I’m writing scenes I normally would have trashed mentally before committing them, with a “see what happens, you can always delete it later” attitude. So after 50,000 words I can set this jumble aside and turn my new-found energy back onto the target that really deserves it.

Last night the beer was flowing as well, and I realized at the end of the night that my stacking instincts had kicked in. This photograph may be the most artistic thing I did last night, though the placement of the bottles is too symmetrical for my taste.

Perhaps the most artistic result of NaNoWriMo so far.

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.