The Process of Perception

Welcome to those of you headed this direction via the writing blog tour! Also Happy Memorial Day!

Thanks to Jennifer Kincheloe at http://jenniferkincheloe.com/ for sending folks my way.

I’m working on some cool projects right now, including a series of Business Principles for Geeks (starting with How to Run a Convention), a series about Cole Harris, the super hero psychologist, and a set of short stories retelling fairy tales as LGBT Steampunk fiction.

Speaking of LGBT Steampunk fiction, I do have a lot of Steampunk elements creeping into my writing. My best quality is definitely all the great female characters of impact. Not to brag, but I work (type) hard to develop characters with power over their own destinies, without turning them into the tomboy-man-with-boobs concept so prevalent in modern fiction. If you’re tired of the tropes, dig into one of my stories.

And why wouldn’t I write science fiction with real characters in it? Who doesn’t want to read about real people? I write to give life to the amazing people around me.

Now, let’s talk about process. Some of you may know that I write a lot of female characters–and QUILTBAG characters, and characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. My process of character development and writing comes from observation, and from perception. I hope my worlds will reflect the world I live in, if only by the characters that exist within them.

So first a crazy idea comes to me in a dream (maybe), and then I sit down and outline it. A short story under 1500 words will probably not be outlined, but anything longer than that needs to have a solid beginning->middle->climax->resolution->ending sort of pattern. So I write up an outline.

That outline usually looks a little bit like this:

Chapter 1: Kip wakes from a bad dream, realizes her roommate is missing. She leaves without saying goodbye and takes the maps with her.

Chapter 2: Kip runs into trouble with the local gangs while searching a library for clues to the past. She escapes on her bike only to be surrounded.

Chapter 3: Kip gets knocked out and wakes up in a strange place. She meets a man who claims to be part of an underground resistance. He wants her to help him.

…and you get the idea. Each step of my outline gets a little mini two-to-three-sentence rundown of what I expect to happen in that chapter. That way I can connect the dots and push through roadblocks if I get stuck.

 

Unfortunately, this long blog tour is slightly dead-ended on my side because I got on the train after all the bloggers I know were already on.

But! I hope you check out a few good reads:

There’s Josh Vogt, who has lots to say on writing and publishing process.

And then there’s Quincy Allen, who spends a lot of time honing his craft and writing about Wild West Steampunk.

And Guy Anthony De Marco, who is published all over the place.

Enjoy your travels, friends.

NaNoWriMo: Surviving and Winning

NaNoWriMo is coming up, and as a repeated achiever of that madness I wanted to share some insight with you all.

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writers Month, indicates the month of November, and is a brilliant literacy-and-creativity-encouraging event thought up by some people who thought it was a good idea to try to pack 50,000 words into 30 days. During the beginning of the holidays. And then they added competition, community support, and the idea took on a life of its own. For those who don’t do novels, per se, there are also script frenzies, edit frenzies etc that they sponsor. The group is a nonprofit that lives off the talented volunteering they have garnered across the globe. I discovered the community in 2005 and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Those who have read some of my work may be surprised to know that Beneath the Crust was written during the 2009 NaNo, a giant chunk of STEAM scripts were written during the 2011 NaNo, and I wrote book 2 (Breaking the Light, working title) last year during the 2012 NaNo. My intention is to write the final book of the trilogy, Defying the Sky (working title) during this NaNo. Having those successes is great, but I wanted to lay out the pros and cons for you and let you make your own decision about whether NaNo is for you. I’ll also give you my methods for survival, because the first time you try to write 1,667 words a day for 30 days you will experience madness.

Some PROS of NaNo:

  1. It gets you writing.
    Seriously. Even if you don’t consider yourself a novelist, the act of pouring out 50k words is an experience everyone should include as part of their ongoing education in life.
  2. It creates a deadline.
    Most people don’t realize how much deadlines impact what they accomplish. If you are an aspiring writer, whether accomplished or not, having deadlines will drive you forward. If you’ve never worked under deadlines before, you will learn a skill that many editors wish many authors had acquired.
  3. You have community support.
    Most of the time, if you tell the people around you that you are going to write a novel, they will tell you to get a real job. Or tell you about their story. Maybe they’ll be supportive, but secretly they think you’re nuts. The upside to the NaNo community is that everyone involved is there to help you reach your word count–whether you like it or not.
  4. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
    It’s generally understood that the first 50k words or so you spew forth in a frenzy will be unedited and in need of some love. And that’s OK.
  5. You can use run-on sentences.
    This blog is my practice for NaNo, and like my novel will likely need additional editing after the fact.
  6. People who would never have written anything are enticed by the competition.
    With any luck they are reading thanks to NaNoWriMo too.

Some CONS of NaNo:

  1. You have a deadline.
    And that means you have to be self-motivating. Get your stuff together, kid. You’re going for a ride.
  2. The “novel” you create will be really rough.
    No one. NO ONE. Writes a perfect novel without editing. You will need lots of it after this.
  3. 50,000 words is a really short novel.
    Good thing you have all of December to write another 50k, right?
  4. Holiday Season.
    It’s easy to get sidetracked by the second half of November. But at least it’s not December?
  5. People will think you are crazy.
    But that’s a given.
  6. People who have no business writing will be writing.
    But don’t be an elitist, seriously.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the ultimate goals of NaNoWriMo.
Your absolute first goal is to hit 50,000 words. This is the definition of “winning” at NaNo.

Your second goal (which is important AFTER 50k words) is to complete the first draft of the manuscript. That means continuing after you hit 50k if that is not a complete work. And this goal is the hard one, because you’re going to want to pop a cork after you hit the first one.

Now for the protips. The techniques and methods discussed in this blog post have worked for others, but we cannot guarantee the techniques and methods utilized here will work for you. But for the love of Zeus, try them anyway. If you haven’t already succeeded at NaNo, your best bet is to hear out the people who have. So, here are my steps for success (survival) and winning.

  1. Use a word processor like Microsoft Word if you can, because it keeps track of words. Save your work often. Don’t lose a whole chapter to system failure. Use this word counting system to keep track of how many words you are up to, so that you can track your progress.
  2. Sign up on the website for an account and join your local NaNo community. And then stay off the forums once the thing actually starts, unless you’ve hit your word goal for the day.
  3. This one is really important, and it’s the reason this post is coming out in early October. Do some prework before you get to November. Decide on a general idea for your story. Decide on a working title. Figure out a main character and write a paragraph or two out about who that person is. Without these ideas you will have a hard time starting strong. To go the extra mile, write a personal profile for each of the core characters for your story.
  4. This ties into #3, and is absolutely my most important protip. Write an outline of your story. If you expect to write a 60,000 word novel with 20 chapters, get a sheet of paper. Write #1, then next to it write 3-4 sentences about what will happen in that chapter (generally speaking). For example (from book 1):1: Kip Jensen Awakens from a strange dream and finds herself in the bunker she shares with Aria, her close friend. She prepares to leave for a day of exploring Old Denver and swipes a map from Aria in the process. She and Aria have a heated discussion about history and the government. Kip leaves Aria to her own devices and races off to the city on her cycle, Bat.This outline you are writing may change entirely while you actually write, but it is your lifeline to keep you on track when you get writer’s block. And you will get writer’s block. The outline (if you stick to it) will also be a rough basis for the synopsis you will need to write when you start pitching your novel, so get to it! You want to do this for every single chapter. I usually find that some of my one-sentence ideas really need a whole chapter, and when I am actually writing I will edit the synopsis as I go. The important thing is to have the synopsis ready.
  5. Set a goal of how many words you will accomplish each day, and don’t go to sleep until they are written. If you need 1,667 and got 3,250 done today, don’t take a break tomorrow. Get your 1,667 done anyway. If you take a break you won’t finish.
  6. Be firm with yourself and your schedule. Select a time every day (the same time every day, if possible) that you are going to write. Give yourself at least an hour. Don’t let yourself off the hook–if you don’t plan for the time you won’t get it done.
    I find the best time for me is before I go to work, which means I do most of my writing from 5am-6am (and then get ready for work). Unfortunately, having a toddler has made my sleep more precious to me, so last year and this have/will have experienced quite the sleep challenge in November.
    The most important part of this point is that you need to pick a time that won’t be too hard. If you’re not a morning person, don’t try to write at 5am! If your job is really tiring, don’t try to write immediately after you get home from work. If the time is too hard, you will struggle to maintain your schedule.
  7. If you maintain a busy schedule away from your keyboard, carry a notebook with you. Any time a thought comes to you jot in those extra 25-200 words. Every little bit is progress, but don’t forget #5. A notebook is no substitute for a word processor.
  8. If you hit a wall, just keep writing. It might get weird, it might get redundant, but the point is to make it to Goal #1. You can fix the reappearance of the word “ash” 67 times during editing.
  9. Attend a write-in if you can (see the NaNo forums for details) because it’s good to look for community support. But don’t expect to get a ton of writing done there, make sure you get your day’s words in beforehand. It’s hard to write and socialize at the same time.
  10. Turn off the internet. Seriously. Do NOT surf Facebook during your writing time. It won’t work.
  11. This crazy thing happens when you’re focused on writing one novel–other ideas that sound more amazing will come to you. Don’t start over! Finish what you started! Even if you hate the 50k words, just sludge through to the end. Editing can turn a painful story into a brilliant gem! If you have time after the first 50k, start the next novel…
  12. Don’t lose momentum. If you’re on a roll and you hit 1,667 words, keep writing if you can spare a few extra minutes. At least finish the thought you’re working on.
  13. If you’re having trouble sleeping, get up and write.
  14. Finish what you started! I can’t say this enough. If you hit 50k early or if you hit it on the 30th, focus on writing that novel to a conclusion. Remember goal #2: A complete first manuscript. The first 50,000 words will only carry you forward. Keep going.

Well, that’s the main gist of my formula, and I hope it helps you NaNoWrites out there–go forth and be prolific! Those of you who are already accomplished authors, weigh in–how do you NaNo?

Steampunk World Wednesday: What Makes a Story Steampunk?

I was recently having a conversation with Mike C, and the conversation sparked an intriguing question. What makes a story Steampunk? It can’t be the Victorian flair, because that just makes a period era novel. I know of someone writing a murder mystery set in 1902, but unless her villain is something unusual, I suspect that will just be another Sherlock Holmes story with a female protagonist. In fact, Sherlock Holmes is not strictly Steampunk, except of course in the latest iteration of movies. The BBC version of Sherlock is much too modern to be Steampunk.
That statement might seem to contradict my earlier assertation that Steampunk does not have to be Victorian and can, in fact, be set in any era. I still hold this to be true, but feel that the one piece of the puzzle that sets the tone from “Steam” or “Punk” or “Victorian” or “Postmodern apocalyptic” to be literally “Steampunk” is the technology–and the way people use it. For example, while Sherlock Holmes is not Steampunk, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang most certainly is.

The essence of Steampunk that draws people in is the technology–the technology of a future bygone era that never was. Brilliant machinery and miniscule gadgets all powered by “mysterious” technology from renewable (or diabolical) resources like the sun, winding gears, wind, coal, steam. Whatever the source, people could see where the electricity was coming from. And if they couldn’t, it was magic–but magic was taboo, and so they resorted to calling it alchemy, at least in the Western world. That technology doesn’t need to be made out of metal. What if, in the heart of the African jungle, a tribal shaman crafts a golem made from wooden joints and mud that runs on solar power, but he wishes for the village to believe that he’s actually working magic? (That’s a good one, I need to write that down…oh, wait). The Chinese were brilliant with gunpowder, what if they designed explosion-powered flying machines that were a crude sort of fission reactor based off of controlled explosions? In other worlds, other times, Steampunk could be a collapse of technology as we know it today and the arrival of new technology built by hand when the knowledge of computers is lost. Or perhaps the Japanese, who built robots before the word “Robot” even existed, left a secret cache of retro robots hidden beneath the earth and they burst forth with directions to protect the world from invaders–human or otherwise. That might already be an anime series…

The thing about Last Exile that makes it a good Steampunk series isn’t the cool Victorian-era uniforms–it’s the steam rifles that plug via long tubes into a giant steam machine and fire bursts of steam large enough to knock a man out of a plane. In my post-apocalyptic save-the-world-from-aliens story, it’s the fact that a devestated people cobble together flying machines out of boats and bicycles, and the Egyptians build solar-powered scooters.

So where is the fine line of technology? Not everyone can be a scientist or a tinkerer. In my conversation with Mike we were talking about whether hitting someone in the face with technology was necessary. In a long novel, the sprinkling throughout is probably adequate–the casual mention of a wristwatch that conceals a derringer, a pocket watch that also shows barometric pressure, a steam engine capable of going underwater for brief periods due to the retractable metal armadillo skin it carries on the nose. Little things that make the story. But in a short story of 4000 words? Focus on the aesthetic, just enough so that the person reading gets a flavoring particle of the world they are stepping into. Otherwise, you’re just writing another fantasy piece.

When it comes down to it, when blooming writers ask me how to make their stories Steampunk, I suggest that they read a few classics, and assume that those things really happened–Babbage’s machine was completed, Edison won the AC/DC war (or lost it sooner),  children didn’t run in fear of the Newark Steam Man, and Nero was a real guy with a real Nautilus. When you understand the basic concepts of technology that neverwas (or almost wasn’t) and the things that the first authors of “Steampunk” based their ideas from, you know where to boldly go. And remember, you can’t be an author if you don’t read. And read a lot.

For the purists out there, Steampunk is not purely science fiction. It is one part Fantasy, one part Sci Fi, one part Alternate History. Shaken, never stirred. No olive.

Monday: Research Writing and Strong Female Detectives

When I was in college, I developed the talent that many have: come to a conclusion, then find research to support it. With the powers of the internet, you can find “proof” of virtually anything. I did some exhaustive studying like that for my first series of books (then found out, through some documentaries about the Mayans that Jamie was watching, that my ideas weren’t that far off).

 

But researching for a book–or a research paper, or anything credible–should be more open-ended. You seek information and dissect that information to reach the meat of your story or hypothesis. I feel strongly about this now, although in college I just wanted a well-written paper to get a good grade. One of my author friends, M.H. Boroson, is exceptionally good at researching the lifeblood of his stories. I think he reads 200 pages for every page written.

That might be excessive, but it did make me feel a bit behind. I’m writing a mystery series and haven’t read any mystery novels lately. I’m thinking I want to pick up Jamie Freveletti’s Running From the Devil. It has won lots of acclaim and she’s a badass in real life, so hopefully her protagonist is also a badass.

 

I did a little searching of Good Reads and found lots of male posters who seemed to think that “women are less likely to have nothing to lose” and “less likely to have a network of thugs and police” and thus “are less likely to be ass-kicking detectives.”
For Exhibit A, I present Detective Kate Beckett from Castle. A show that I had to watch all of, just for research purposes. And because Beckett is awesome.

 

Before I get on a soapbox, I want to close with the idea that research in/of/within science fiction and fantasy is not just a fancy way of saying “read more books.” I think we might even have to do an AnomalyCon Presents panel on the subject, perhaps in the August edition.

Monday: Strong Women in Fiction:

The language in this post may be a bit harsher than usual, and this is a long post.

 

Recently I have been conducting a series of arguments thinly disguised as panels at conventions around the city, discussing what could be considered a hot topic. Usually the attendance is primarily female, but I do find that a few men seeking character writing advice will often attend.

This panel and its contents are most interesting because everyone comes hoping to learn, but also with their own vision of what strength is and who has it.

 

By and large when we begin, people identify with the thought that physical strength is an indicator of character strength–the outmoded way of thinking that only masculine strength characteristics are valid. We will talk about what characters are strong and why: Katniss (Hunger Games), for her abilities with weapons. Merida (Brave), for her fighting and riding skills, Beckett (Castle), Snow (Once Upon a Time), for being complete badasses.

But then, as panelists, we direct the audience to consider what other aspects of these characters give them strength. If stripped of their ability to physically destroy their attackers, what else do they have going for them?

 

For most of them, the conclusion is also a life lesson straight out of a psychology textbook. Each of these characters, in spite of their surroundings, knows that she has the ability to change her own destiny (or fate, in Merida’s case). They do not allow external forces upon their life to convince them that their predicament is insurmountable. They are not carried along by other forces. They have their own goals and dreams and agenda and refuse to let those be stolen from them.

 

With that definition, many more characters get pulled into the mix. What about Nancy Drew, who was not physically dangerous but was smart, talented, and had a penchant for getting herself in and out of trouble? What about Arya of Game of Thrones, who a headstrong and brave 11 year old who doesn’t want to be a lady because she perceives that her society looks down on women in dresses?

 

But wait, our audience cries out. Do you have to play like a boy to be treated with respect?

While my own experiences are a bad example of dressing like a woman and playing in that arena, sacrificing one’s own style is not a sign of strength, but a sign of self defense. If our society is to outgrow the obsessive notion that women in power are bitches or sluts, women who prefer to be feminine must be able to do so without compromising their strength of character. There are examples of this.

 

What about Pepper Potts (Iron Man), who may seem to just be the assistant to a billionaire but is in fact an entrepreneur and a brilliant businesswoman who takes matters into her own hands whenever necessary? Beckett wears heels and runs in them–but not spikes, because that would be insane. The Evil Queen wears beautiful dresses and still manages to control everything.

 

This leads to further discussion about what constitutes good and what constitutes evil, whether one can be evil and still be strong, etc. Someone always mentions Twilight in these panels. I want to underline carefully that a character being weak does not necessarily mean the writing is bad.


Someone in the last iteration of this panel asked me how he could write strong female characters as a man. I told the audience to write what they know–write about their sisters, their daughters, their mothers, their friends in the workplace. Everyone knows strong women. Everyone has them in their life. If you do not see strong women all around you, you are not looking hard enough–or your mind is stuck in the 50s.

Editing, Part…4?

We’ve finally finished the read-out-loud portion of editing, and Beneath the Crust is approaching 305 pages in the final cut. It’s almost ready to hit the presses…

 

And, for your entertainment, a snippet of character development from a supporting character:

“It’s another five kilometers…assuming we are going the right direction and assuming we don’t have to take a lot of detours.” Marge scurried to keep up with Kip’s long stride.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a pessimist?” Kip wondered aloud for the others’ benefit.

“I’m a realist, honey. That means I tell it like it is.” She stopped hurrying to light up a cigarette. The entire trip across the ocean Kip had never seen her light up. She smiled inwardly.

“So you welcome death,” Daniel asked from behind them.

“No, honey. I just expect it. That doesn’t mean I give it a gift basket.” She coughed and blew a ring of smoke back over her shoulder. Kip covered her mouth, stifling a chuckle at Daniel’s expense.