Month: December 2012

The 2012 Janus Post

One goal I have with Identity Function is to publish my plans so that I can track them and hold myself accountable for what does and doesn’t happen. Obviously this blog wasn’t here last year so I don’t have published notes on my goals for the year just finishing, but I will do my best to say what I was planning to do and talk about how things went. Then I will lay out my writing goals for next year.

Looking Back

2012 was supposed to be the year that I finished book one of the Kissiltur trilogy and started shopping it around. I had identified the core weakness in the book (ie not having a plot) and I constructed a chapter plan to start writing the new material I needed.

In the end, that plan fell victim to job-related stress and a busy summer. Not having an established daily writing practice meant there was no resiliency to my writing time, and I just didn’t write anything substantial between March and September.

However, I had an interesting new novel from NaNoWriMo 2011, which after light editing garnered some great feedback from friends who read it. The effective loss of six months of writing meant I did no work on developing it further, but I have a plan now. I also had the chance to read en excerpt from the book at a launch event for Brave on the Page, which was a valuable experience.

On which subject, that excellent collection from Laura Stanfill has been a wonderful surprise – it is my first literary publishing credit, and I am thrilled to have my words included in this excellent volume. There is another launch event on 7th January 2013 at Powell’s downtown.
2012 has closed a little more strongly: I started this blog in September, wrote the plot injection for Bluehammer during November, and developed the aforementioned plan for Song last week.

Looking Forward

My plans for 2013 are –

  1. Finish Bluehammer, which will entail developing a Bluehammer plan after I’ve read it. Next action: read the manuscript after 17th January
  2. Execute the Song plan. Next action: develop outline.
  3. Submit one novel. Next action: aside from finishing a novel, need to find some markets.
  4. Start looking for an agent. Next action: research agents who represent science fiction.
  5. Establish a daily writing practice. Next action: write every day. This blog helps a lot for that.

How has your year gone? What are your plans for the new year?

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On Song

Bluehammer is resting, and in the meantime I am working on my 2011 NaNovel, A Turquoise Song.

Song is a story that comes from the title – I dreamed it while I was resting after a yoga session. I knew immediately that it was about synaesthesia, but it was a long time until I knew what the synaesthetes were doing or what the story was about. I don’t remember when I came up with the idea of synaesthetes repairing robots – of synaesthetes being uniquely qualified to make those repairs – but that was the key to the plot.

The writing for this novel when I started it mostly went smoothly. So many questions that I had about the story at the beginning resolved themselves during the process, and I ended up with a manuscript of about eighty thousand words. My wife liked it and I had good feedback on it from a number of friends. The most common remark was that it was really two books: that plots setup in the first half were not resolved, and that the second half plot was introduced without being developed.

Reading the story back, I can only agree. So the plan at the moment is:

  1. To outline what I have
  2. To expand the outline of the first half into a complete story
  3. To work on that outline until the story is good.
  4. To plug in text I can use from Song 2011
  5. To write the new stuff needed to complete the outline
  6. Edit: I missed this one – make submission materials – synopsis, pitch, hook, and all of that.

An expanded version of this plan lives in a project file, and the next action lives in my “next” file.

I will be posting the plan for Bluehammer once I’ve read it back. In the meantime, I am also coming up with interesting novel and series ideas.

Well, better than not having any idea what to write.

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Finding Time To Write, Again

In the run up to NanoWriMo, I wrote about finding time to write. My experience during November was that I achieved an average over the month of about 2,500 words per day, but that was with half a dozen days of little or no writing. On actual writing days (where I wrote more than a thousand words), I was regularly getting more than 3,000 words.

However, I also didn’t exercise for the entire month, which has done me no good at all. This is clearly not tenable for the rest of the year, and really it is not what should happen in November either.

So, when did I write, and how many words did I get?

  • before breakfast: 700-1200 words
  • on the bus in: 400-700 words
  • lunch: 1000-1500 words
  • on the bus home: 400-700 words
  • evening: 1000-2000 words

It’s pretty apparent that I could still manage a couple of thousand words a day even without the lunchtime writing. Hence, I could actually reach the nominal NaNoWriMo pace and still run at lunch. I just (just!) have to not get obsessed with my story. The real discovery here is the bus writing time – this is time I have only had available to me since the summer when I started a new job, but it is a real gift for making word count.

What this is leading up to is the commitment to actually make a daily practice of writing, which I have always had trouble maintaining over the non-November portions of the calendar.

Time to get some books written.

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Merry Christmas

Just a short note today to wish you all a jolly festival of food and fellow-feeling.

Merry Christmas*, one and all**.

These winter festivals are important or people wouldn’t keep inventing them – it’s dark and cold outside (at least in the northern parts of the northern hemisphere) and if ever there’s a time you need to get together with friends and family to talk and laugh, it’s when it’s grim beyond the doors of your home.

May the season be kind, and the family not too annoying.

[*] my Christmas is religion-free, just as my Thursday is.

[**] and I will merrily accept whatever seasonal wishes you prefer to confer on me and mine; I just call this time of year Christmas.

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What Should I Work On Next?

I have several projects in the air at once. Last time I counted I had about a dozen novels I could work on at any given time. So how do I choose what to work on next?

First of all, what does “next” mean?

I have learned – eventually – that I work best when I am concentrating on a single project and a single aspect of that project: I am not a particularly effective multitasker, so “next” means “when I have finished a task on a project or am no longer able to make progress on that task”.

Once I recognise that I need to find something else to work on, I think about which projects are active and which sound most interesting. The caveat here is that there are many tasks in developing any creative project which are not that interesting, but have to happen in order to get to the good stuff.

I use a few elements of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done (or GTD) in my task planning, and one in particular is very powerful: the concept of the next action.

A classic to do list has a long list of all the things that need to be accomplished for a project to be deemed complete. GTD suggests keeping a project file with all the planning breakdowns and state information, but when it to comes to the todo list all you keep is the next thing that needs to be done for that project.

So, for example, the next action for the recently compiled manuscript of Bluehammer is to read it and make rough edit notes thereon. However, that action doesn’t become active until the middle of January.

I turn therefore to A Turquoise Song, the NaNovel I wrote in 2011. I’ve just completed a read through which gives me a rough sense of the work needed, and so I know that the next action on this project is to prepare an outline for the full story from the first half of Song.

Now, the project actions I have been talking about so far are pretty meaty jobs – annotating a lengthy manuscript and preparing an outline are both tasks which will take many hours. I am fine with that – indeed, I quite like it because it gives me well-defined domain to work in within which it is easy to track progress.

This brings up another small point, which is that it is important to fit the task to the time and energy available. The manuscript reading is relatively easy to manage, because although it is large task as a whole, reading a handful of pages only takes a a few minutes. In a similar vein, trying to construct a plot outline when I am in an uncreative frame f mind is a lost cause.

Some of this is more at the level of aspiration rather than actuality right now – for example, I don’t have a current list of next actions on all my personal projects – but this is the plan I am working for the next this year.

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A Short Note About Apocalypses

I was going to write a post about apocalyptic fiction, but I decided not to because I don’t have a lot to say about it. I’ve read my share of it to be sure, from Cold War-era fantasies of post-nuclear holocaust survival and evolution to more recent stories such as The Road, but the basic problem is that I don’t care for those stories much.

This may help explain why my one attempt at writing apocalyptic horror fell so flat.

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Collecting My Worlds

I have mentioned mind mapping before. One of the things I use mind maps for is to collect information about the worlds that I invent.

Kissiltur and its empire are big places, and when I am digging away in the word mines I often invent things on the spur of the moment that I forget about the next time I come back to that narrative. So, collecting a gazetteer of the world’s features and the characters that populate it is an important part of smoothing out the roughness – if I have an incidental character appearing in one scene, it might make sense for that same character to appear later in another character’s narrative, for example. Conversely, I may accidentally use the same name in more than one place even thought the characters should be distinct – I know I have used the name “Marissa” for at least three different female service personnel. Now, that might be something I could use as a joke, but I want to choose to make that joke rather than having it look like an error.

More to the point, there are names and locations that I have made up in previous drafts of this work which I want to continue into this version.

Here is what I do.

  1. open a new map file in Freemind*
  2. read the story
  3. for each thing in the story, make a note in a category node
    1. do you have a category for this thing?
    2. if so, then note it there
    3. if not, then create it along with an other reasonable categories
  4. add details to the thing node to capture specifics

For example, the governor of the Outer Empire settlement of Terrian who appears in one scene would be categorised as

Characters / incidental / Outer Empire / <name> / governor of Terrian

“Governor of Terrian” is a detail applied to the name, and any physical description as further details on the node.

That’s pretty much it. I have one map per book in order to control size, but all of this needs to be collated and pulled together in one file at some point – not to mention needing some updates from the drafting process in early 2011 and in this last November. Try really hard to avoid the mistake I made of having one map per chapter, and then having to pull everything together in one massive map editing session.

It’s worth noting that this basic review process is also useful for outlining the structure of unplanned manuscripts, although I would probably put the outline directly into Scrivener.

[*] other mind mapping software is available

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Reviewing Your Own Work

Parts of my process for writing are pretty well established while others are still being formed. I have a pretty well developed capacity for generating words, for example, while the process for massaging a random collection of scenes into something resembling a book is something which I am still figuring out.

One of the more well-established parts of my process is that of reviewing my manuscripts. There’s two versions of this process – one for paper, and one for Kindle.

Paper

  1. print out manuscript
  2. obtain a colored pen. I like red, but other contrasting colors are available
  3. read through for typos and glaring errors. Make typo notes – these are standard editors marks
  4. read through again for deeper issues, adding tick boxes for each thing to be changed
  5. make changes, ticking them off as you go
  6. repeat, or move on to Kindle method

Note that I would expect to get at least two read throughs out of a single manuscript print since otherwise it is very wasteful of paper.

Kindle

(other ebook readers are available, but I only have experience with Kindles

  1. compile .mobi file. I use Scrivener so it is built-in to the UI, although you can also use Amazon’s tools without a front end
  2. deliver to Kindle, either by copying with the USB cable or by sending to the Kindle’s email address
  3. read through looking for consistency, tone, word choice, or whatever particular feature of the book you want to work on.
  4. make annotations on the text. This is easiest on the touchscreen Kindles since you can just highlight a chunk of text and then make a note, but it is also possible on the other devices
  5. optional: back up the .mbp file that is created to hold your annotations
  6. make changes, deleting notes as they are acted on
    1. notes on tone may get inserted as annotations within the text
    2. notes on substance or setting will probably go in a “what’s wrong” file
    3. typos just get implemented
  7. repeat as necessary

The advantages of the Kindle process are pretty apparent: it’s a faster turnaround, it uses less paper, and making more copies is very easy. There are times when a paper edition is more pleasing, though: there is something very satisfying about pulling an inch-thick manuscript from a drawer, then sitting down and reading it.

Other People’s Thoughts

This process is primarily tuned for my workflow, but it also makes sense with regard to comments from beta readers*. If I deliver a Kindle document to them, they may in turn send the .mbp file back to me. I can then read their comments against the original text, and even extract those comments (something for another post, that).

[*] I use the term “beta” in the same way it is used in software: an alpha release is for verifying that the software does something at all – it may not have all of its features yet, for example, or there are known issues – whereas a beta release is substantially complete but perhaps not fully tested in all cases. So, applying the same terminology to fiction, I think that you are your own alpha reader, but you hand the text off to beta readers for a sanity check.

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Giving and Receiving Criticism

As writers, we are part of a community and one of the roles of that community is to offer feedback on each others’ work. Not everyone wants feedback, but I would contend that if you are the only one reading your work then the chances are slim that your writing will improve. Further, you are unlikely to receive detailed feedback in any rejection letters.

There are a number of good critique communities online – Scribophile is one that I like – but finding a local writing group is also a good way forward. The thing about online communities, though, is that the commentary is likely to be written down which, for me at least, makes it a great deal easier easier to remember what was said.

Giving and receiving feedback has its own etiquette.

If you are offering your work up for reading, be clear about the kind of feedback you are looking for: the question here is whether you are looking for ways to improve your writing, or are you looking for reassurance that your work is already great? There is no shame in asking for positive reinforcement rather than detailed criticism, but it is really quite rude to ask for honest feedback and then to take offense when it is supplied.

It is also important to remember that your time is important, but so is the readers’ – be sure that the pages you post are as good as you can make them before you solicit feedback. A reviewer who starts in on a piece when detailed feedback is requested but where the writing is riddled with errors may react poorly.

When receiving feedback, there are a few things to remember.

Firstly, be glad that someone took the time to read your words. The reviewer spent time and energy on this; please acknowledge it.

Secondly, any comments made are on your work, not on you (or they should be – if they’re not, then the reviewer has acted inappropriately).

Finally, remember that the reviewer is offering their opinion. How much weight you assign to that opinion is up to you, but by posting your work you have asked for someone’s thoughts. Do not attack the reviewer – by all means ask questions about particular comments, or answer questions raised by the reviewer, but focus on what is on the page in front of you.

As reviewer, there are also a few basic things to bear in mind: be succinct, get to the point, and address the work not the author.

That last is the most critical element, I think, but these are all about respect, honesty, and valuing time – the author’s as well as yours as a reviewer.

I am as aware as anyone of how much we put into our writing, but as writers we have to learn to separate commentary on our work from criticism of our selves: when I comment “this word is wrong, use <something else>” I do not mean “you are an idiot for choosing this word,” I mean “this word does not convey the meaning implied by the context which suggests to me that a different word would have been more effective.” The first form is more succinct and to the point, and is more likely both to be written (because it is shorter) and to be understood.

For myself, I consciously omit filler about how the comments are my opinion – of course the remarks are my opinion or I would not be the one writing them, and you would not have asked me to read the piece if you did not want my opinion. But you are getting my opinion of the work, not your worth as a human being – play the ball, not the man, as they say in football*.

Anyway, that’s my approach to reviews and readings for others and to commentary on my own work. I have no intent to hurt anyone’s feelings and with something as personal as our writing that can be hard to manage, but at the same time if we are looking for improvements to our work then we need to be prepared to accept that what we write may not be perfect as first written.

[*] this being the kind of football where you use your feet

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