Tag Archives: Thoughts

Living Inside Your Head

Writing is an internal activity, even though it produces an external artifact.

So much if what we do as writers is done inside our heads. There isn’t a moment when we’re out in the world where our latest story or the latest topic we want to write about isn’t lurking around in there. I’ve often joked, except it isn’t really a joke, that if I do anything for more than an hour, I’m probably going to write about it.

Writing is a lot like singing, your instrument is your body. Singing is something you can do anywhere, without any special equipment. Writing is basically the same way. Even when you don’t have something to actually put your words onto, you can compose them in your head and reproduce them later when you get to a writing implement.

The trouble with carrying your instrument around with you wherever you go is the tendency to internalize everything around you, to let the world, your emotions, your moods, your level of energy, affect the work. Sometimes this can be good. The external and internal emotional world can serve as fuel to really passionate activity. And other times it shuts us down, and makes it impossible to get anything out of our heads.

Right now I’m on a bit of a burn out from the news of the world. It isn’t that I don’t want to be engaged with what is going on. I actually think  we’re going through a pretty important moment in our country now, I just can’t always be a part of it and get anything good done. When life is stressful, it can be hard to take in the negative things without that being reflected in your work. Again, maybe there’s a way to turn it around, and part of being a strong writer is being able to find a way to write under any circumstances. But at the same time writing is such a finely tuned instrument, that sometime the smallest disappointment or disagreement can gum up the works.

And sometimes we need to get out of our own way, and just get words onto the page. I spent probably five minutes writing a sentence, then immediately deleting it, just on this one blog post. Writing 500-600 words a day is something that on the one hand comes as second nature to me, and on the other is a constant struggle every day. Do people care about what I have to say? Am I making any sense? Should I be more topical or less?

Drink beer when you’re trying to write something for the first time, and coffee when you go back to revise.

A lot of writers have gone to chemical alteration to put themselves into the proper writing state. I’d be afraid for both legal and biological reasons to try anything sterner than caffeine or alcohol, and playing with what time of day I write. Sometimes I’m more creative when I’m tired, and sometimes I’m more blocked. Energy can be both a good and a bad thing. It’s great when you’re on a roll, but it also can send you down an endless loop of doubt and rewriting if you hit a bump. With tiredness comes apathy, and even though that can seem like a negative emotion, sometimes its good not to care overmuch. You should be passionate about the project, excited by scenes and chapters, and maybe even bits of dialog, but there are days you just need to get the framework in place for when you can fix it later. I used to think first drafts were the easiest because your brain wasn’t locked in a rut, but actually when you do revision enough you can find ways to improve something that was truly dreadful the first time. Just seeing words on a page is encouraging.

I fear this may be a bit of rambling, which comes with the territory for stream of consciousness writing. My point is, know how things in the world, what you drink, what you say, what you feel, affect what you want to write. Then act accordingly. And get more sleep than you think you’ll need. You’ll feel better. We all like to think we’re geniuses who’ll stay up all night sipping whiskey, and smoking cigarettes while typing up a masterpiece. But most of us need to take care of ourselves.

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Locational Personality

Are you a different person depending on where you are?

I think we can agree that we act differently depending on WHO we are with. We act differently with our co-workers than we do with people in our church, or our good friends. But what about WHERE we are.

Even co-workers will act differently based on whether it is a meeting, a company event, or talking at a bar.

And what about vacations?

Vacations can certainly change the dynamic of a family from how they are at home. My wife and I tend to adopt a “sense of adventure” meaning we’re willing for a few things to go wrong. We actually travel very well together, even though Google often leads us down a lot of blind alleys. I tend to be less worried about work and the writing.

Now it’s understandable that certain places might put us in a more relaxed state of mind, but making us more willing to deal with difficulty, to forget the concerns that are always on our mind, but it can have an even subtler affect.

I tend to be a bit of a snarky, sarcastic fellow (my wife calls it picking). It’s always meant in fun, like a friendly jab, but it gets tiresome. And yet somehow, when I’m on vacation, I can leave this part of me aside.

Some people use location as an excuse to do whatever they’ve always dreamed of doing (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas).

I’m not sure why any of this is, but I think it’s something interesting to think about, both in your life, but also in your writing. Part of creating a fully human character involves understanding how we interact with the world, no matter where we find ourselves.

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It’s All Coming Back To Me Now

I’ve been retreading some old ground lately.

Some of it’s nostalgia. Watching old TV shows I like to watch, remembering things through chance find that I had almost forgotten (like Making Fiends). But more than that, I’m going back to some of the ideas and passions that fascinated me a number of years ago.

I guess it started with NaNoWriMo. I made my novel project for that month the redrafting of my high-school first novel (which holds the place as my first or my third book depending on when you ask me). It had been years since I had thought about those characters, those scenarios. Some things were familiar, and played out as they had before. Others changed, grew deeper or at least different. The reasons are obvious, I’m not the same guy I was in high-school. I’ve had more experiences, refined my writing process, and have new ideas about what’s interesting to explore.

And yet I still find myself coming back to a few old standbys.

Recently it’s been Fractals. It’s been years since I’ve seriously done any fractal programming or research but as those who follow the blog regularly will know, I’ve gotten back into them with a vengeance. I’m even considering having a Friday Fractal of the month (or fortnight) feature on the blog to showcase some of the behind the scenes work I’m doing at the moment. I don’t know what brought me back exactly (a NOVA special and a certain ridiculously tall writer friend of mine might have had something to do with it), but I find that even though that particular passion has laid dormant for so many years, it has lost none of its vigor.

There’s always a push as a writer and as a person to keep trying something new. To embrace a new project, or new TV show, or a new passion. But revisiting old thoughts is necessary as well, and can often lead to new ideas and projects. Nothing is ever too old to be reconsidered.

What things do you keep coming back to? What is that experience like for you?

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When Do Passions Begin?

I have been writing since I was 2-3 years old. Apparently one of my first works would best be classified as Muppet Baby fanfic, a prospect which makes me shudder slightly. In elementary school there was the “Detective Ben” series, with glasses for the logo since I started wearing glasses in the 1st grade. By 4th Grade there was “Trapped: A Space Adventure” which contains elements of what would later become my Atlantia series, and by 7th ad 8th grade I was writing early drafts and outlines of stories I am still revisting to this day.

Of course I would never let this “early work” see the light of day, and there is a strong instinct for me to discard ideas that come from “immature” periods of my life. Even as I revisit the Atlantia story, which was my first finished novel my senior year of high-school, I find myself needing to rewrite the entire thing. At the same time, however, I’m still in love with the basic narrative, and have been shaping it and maturing it since that first story in the 4th grade, to the more current, and readable iteration.

I’m 27 and I think it would be a little weird to say that I’ve been writing for a quarter century, but in some ways that’s how long I’ve had a writing passion.

Something a little more manageable is fractals. I learned about fractals for the first time in the 6th grade, 15 years ago. I wrote a number of fractal programs and papers in High-School, including some which portray some alarming views of art colleges, and have continued to write fractal imaging programs through college and beyond. I’ve learned more about the history and current practices of fractals, as well as written about them on this blog several times. More than any other subfield of mathematics or computer science, fractals fascinate me. They are a passion, one that I can rightly say I’ve had for fifteen years.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I still feel pretty young. I’m hoping that I’ve been alive at most a third of my remaining lifetime. I’m nowhere near the lifetime achivements of writers like Asimov, or mathematicians like Dr. Mandelbrot, or accomplished singers (I’ve been singing in choirs since 6th grade or so til last year). But I think it is accurate to say that some of my passions have been around for decades. Even programming, my profession for which I have only been gainfully employed for about five years, is something I’ve really been doing for about 12.

Obviously we do not want to live solely in glory days of the past. We want new ideas and new explorations beyond the things we thought about in High-School. But it would be a mistake I think just to throw out those ideas because they weren’t “mature” enough. We are the sum total of our experiences, and while it may take us years to find who we really are, some parts are apparent earlier than others.

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Where Do I Focus?

I’m thinking about taking on a new project.

I have this thought at least a couple of times a week.  99% of the time I tend to dismiss these thoughts, reminding myself that I want to focus on a couple of things, rather than dabbling in everything.  When I started this blog a few months ago I was trying to draft new material for one book, revise two others, search for literary agents, write query letters, all while reading and writing short fiction and this blog. The first casualty was the new book, then one of the revisions, the agent search, the reading and the short story writing until I’ve winnowed it down to revising one book and blogging.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to switch between narratives of three different novels was getting confusing, and the agent search is still something I’m doing from time to time. The blog affords me the opportunity to write on a variety of subjects, and even try out some short stories while getting useful feedback. And it integrates well into my life remaining (for most posts) confined to the hour I spend every lunch writing it.

But I am always thinking of new ideas, or revisiting old ones.

Sometimes I can integrate a new project into an existing one. Before I started this blog I had been giving some serious thought to starting a blog on one of my favorite hobbies, getting old games to work in new systems. I would call this blog AGFV or “A Game Forever Voyaging”, an allusion to the famous Infocom game “A Mind Forever Voyaging”. Knowing a little better now the amount of energy that goes into maintaining one blog, it’s unrealistic for me to try to do two and continue to revise. But that doesn’t mean I can’t stop from time to time to cover the topic here. Starting tomorrow and recurring every 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month I’ll cover either a game, an emulator, or something else relating to old PC games (hope you’ll enjoy).

But sometimes you have to choose.

I’m thinking about a non-fiction book project, one that might take me (and possibly a collaborator) 5-6 months to complete. It would involve programming, research, and learning more about eBook publishing formats, all good things to know for my eventual fiction publishing goals. For reasons I’ll get into another time, this moment seems like a better moment than others to work on this project, but it will mean my novel revision schedule will slow down considerably or grind to a halt.

I’ve been working for about 4 months revising my latest novel and have (for the most part) been enjoying that process. I just recently started typing in my hand revisions and even have the first chapter in Kindle format as a bit of a reward to myself. I don’t really want to stop, but I’m excited about the prospects this new project might have, both for expanding an audience, and for filling a void that I think someone should address.

For the moment I’m not sure what I’ll do. Maybe this’ll be like the other 99% of my ideas, but maybe not. I’m praying about it, and in the meantime trying to get work done on the things I know I need to do. There are moments in all of our lives where we have the opportunity to stop what we’re doing and do something else, whether it’s changing jobs or deciding to exercise, or pursuing an interest. Sometimes we’re right where we should be, and other times we need to take a detour to get where we’re going.

If I figure it out, I’ll let you know. Thanks for riding along with me!

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Filed under Internal Debate 42, Writing

Removing “pink slime” from your novel

How do you recognize and remove “filler” from your novel?

I’ve hit a patch like this in my current draft. It’s not that the writing is especially bad (or at least not worse than anything else around it), but it doesn’t seem to do much to advance the plot or enrich the characters. Plus, it’s in the middle of a section of the book that my alpha readers thought went on too long. A temptation is to toss the whole passage out, but there might still be valuable bits to be saved. How do you identify what’s working and what’s not?

1) Does the passage advance the plot? – Does the passage reveal anything new about the situation your characters find themselves in? Does it introduce a new crisis that they must face? I’m working on an action story right now and one of the temptations is to throw my characters into crisis after crisis, then leave them to fiddle their way out. This led one of my alpha readers to comment that my book reads a little like a video game in places. Action can be one of the most exciting moments in a book, but good action needs good setup, and even a good action scene needs to pertain in someway to accomplishing a goal.

2) Does the passage grow your characters? –  Do the characters interact in a way that reveals more about themselves, their past or their relationship? Do their actions in the scene change the interaction in any way? A scene where two characters are having coffee might not do much to advance the plot, but it can illuminate how they communicate with one another, what they like to do to relax, and also provide a break from the action. It might be tempting to cut out these beats, but if they enrich your characters they might be worth saving.

3) Does the passage describe the environment, or explain a technical detail? – A large part of my current story takes place on a large spacecraft, adrift in space. The location of certain assets, the bridge, engineering, the main computer, and places to eat, factor into some of the decisions my characters have to make. Where possible I’m trying not to use the “techno-babble” approach to solving problems, which means the ship is governed by a set of rules, an interaction if systems, and a specific layout of decks. While I don’t want to take 50 pages to describe all of these in detail, I want the reader to understand where they are.

4) Does the passage show my work? – It aggravates me when characters are dumber than I am, or possesses knowledge that has been hidden from me. I want my reader to have the same understanding of the environment and the current situation as my characters do. Sometimes I cut a passage where a character is thinking about the crisis because I think it is redundant, but it may be the kind of review that’s helpful in putting the situation together for the reader. While novels aren’t TV, where you need to summarize what happened before the act break, it is still important that there be a sequence of actions, one action affecting the next. A story in which a character makes random decisions with no thought for what has happened would not be a very good one.

5) Why did I write this? – This is the broad question that encompasses the first four. If the reason was “I needed to write 1800 words today” then cut it.

6) Can I rewrite this? – Even if a passage has valuable qualities like the ones above, it may not be the best implementation. The details revealed, and the character interactions might all be valuable, but their current goal is flawed. Other sections can be sprinkled into parts of the novel that are working but need a little flavor. I’ve encountered this a couple of times in this draft, and extensively on my previous book.

7) Don’t be too ruthless – One value of alpha and beta readers is external feedback. We aren’t always the best judges of what people like about our work, and it never hurts to get a second opinion. The final decision is always yours, but input is incredibly valuable (and has already saved a large portion of the beginning of my book I was inclined to cut). And keep your old drafts around, even the ones you edited by hand. You never know when something might be useful.

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