Category Archives: Writing: Technique

A Four Question Blog-Hopping Meme Thing About Writing

This friendly rock-hopper penguin welcomes you!

(Tagged by my friend Andrea Stewart. Andrea is a member of my face-to-face writers’ group, WordForge. She’s wicked talented and a really neat person to boot. Check out her website and her fiction.) 

So many books to read! So much television to watch! So much social media to catch up on, constantly! So much work to do at work! It’s actually kind of amazing that I get any writing done at all, isn’t it? And yet somehow I manage to get some words written on a more or less regular basis.

1. What are you currently working on?

Currently, a couple of things. First, of course, is my novel Code Monkey, which is a refinement of the novel I wrote for National Novel Writing Month in November 2009. I thought it was fun and I honestly believe it has potential. My goal is to complete the current draft within the next week so that I can submit it to my crit group this month.

I’m also working on a couple of short stories: “Flash Drive” and “The X of Doom”. And, of course, I plan to publish “The Winds of Patwin County” in July under the Igneous Books label. More details on that as they become available.

 2. How does your work differ than others in its genre?

That’s a tricky question because I’m not actually entirely sure what genre Code Monkey belongs in. I call it a “love story with occasional monsters” but that by no means implies that I’m writing a romance. I’ve asked around, and the people who’ve read early drafts seem to agree that it’s contemporary fantasy, but I’m not sure what defines that genre. So, I’m not sure how to answer this question, except to say that I hope I’m doing enough differently to make it entertaining and to avoid the tropes and cliches common to the genre it belongs in.

The same is true of the short stories I’m working on.

3. Why do you do what you do?

I’m not 100% sure, but I think it has something to do with just enjoying the process. I’ve written stories ever since I was very young (my mom still has “Tornado in the Sky”, a book I wrote when I was, I believe, 6). Whenever anyone suggests a game of Dungeons and Dragons, I want to be the Dungeon Master. I’m not always satisfied being the audience. I just like to create the worlds and the characters and the stories that they’re involved in.

4. How does your writing process work?

Too often, it simply doesn’t. While I almost always have a document open in Scrivener or LibreOffice on my computer, I’m too frequently distracted by something else: a novel I’m reading in one browser tab, or Facebook or Twitter in another. I know the best thing for me to do would be to shut down my Internet connection when I write, or simply switch to a workstation that has no Internet connection at all, but I find it’s simply too easy to restore the connection and start browsing again.

But I’ve set myself some goals. Daily writing. A certain word count or time spent editing per day. And so on. I’m hoping you readers will help hold me accountable.

And here I go, tagging some people.

First, Dex Fernandez. Dex is a talented writer and a good friend. We go back several years.

Second, Jessica, whom I know through NaNoWriMo, and who’s pretty spiffy, in my opinion.

Third, Jamie Thornton, another member of my writers’ group. She is the author of Rhinoceros Summer, a fantastic coming-of-age novel that spans two continents.

And, finally, Leigh Dragoon, a great writer, member of my writers’ group, and a good friend.


I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this term. I like to think that I am, though, so I’m going to claim that I am. “NaNoCruft”. It’s the term I use to refer to the bits of prose that you used to fatten up your word count when writing your National Novel Writing Month (or, NaNoWriMo) novel. It’s the stuff that, even two revisions later, causes one of the members of your writers’ group to say, “Huh. You wrote this during NaNoWriMo, didn’t you?”

NaNoWriMo is, for the uninitiated, all about writing a novel in one month. For the purposes of the project, a novel is defined as a work of fiction 50,000 words or more in length. It’s a pretty arbitrary target, but it seems to work for many thousands of people worldwide every November. The number of participants worldwide has been steadily increasing since it was started by Chris Baty in 1999; and the number of “winners” — people who actually make it to the 50,000 word mark and beyond — has also increased. A few published novels, including the bestselling Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, started out life as NaNoWriMo novels, and I think that the majority of the participants in NaNoWriMo share the dream of publishing their novel, having it become a bestseller, be optioned for a film, and so on. It’s why so many of us go on after November to either finish up the novel (it’s common for participants to complain that even though they reached the 50,000 word mark, their story is still far from complete), or to edit it. Some have even gone on to designate every February as NaNoEdMo, and there are usually at least a couple thousands participants in that as well.

Because the emphasis of NaNoWriMo is on quantity and not quality, there are a number of tricks that participants use to pad out their word count, and it’s this padding that ends up being “NaNoCruft” when it isn’t removed during subsequent edits. In my own novel, The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster, which started out as my 2005 NaNoWriMo novel (and I’m still working on it nearly four years novel? Ouch), readers in my novelists’ group have identified several habits that count as “NaNoCruft”. Excessive ruminating, for example; my characters frequently ruminate on events that have already transpired. This ends up with the same events being told two or more times. An attack by monsters is not just shown, but the characters involved talk about it amongst themselves, think about it, and whenever a point of view is shifted, the characters ruminate about it again. And again. And again. I’ve tried to eliminate most of this rumination, but some still remains, and that’s NaNoCruft. Characters of mine also make long speeches about irrelevant topics. This, too, is NaNoCruft. Extraneous characters show up and do things that aren’t relevant to the action of the novel. More NaNoCruft.

NaNoCruft is difficult to eliminate. Plenty of writers fall deeply in love with their own words, with their own clever turns of phrases, with their own characters, and so on; so to eliminate any of them can feel like amputation without any sort of anesthesia. It hurts, so they try to avoid it. And because writers are so deeply entrenched in their work, they have blind spots to their own faults. I certainly do, and that makes it hard for me to track down and eliminate my own NaNoCruft. I’m always surprised when a member of my novelists’ group points out a passage in a draft of STSM and say, “This shows me you wrote it during NaNoWriMo.”

Thus, with its focus on just getting 50,000 words written, regardless of whether or not they’re good words, NaNoWriMo can encourage bad habits for writers that are difficult for the writer to see, much less get rid of. This is not to say that NaNoWriMo is a bad idea. I’ve participated every year since 2001 (skipping 2002), and each year I’ve hit that 50,000 word mark. I fully intend to participate this year. For the last two years I’ve served as the co-municipal liaison for our area, and I plan on doing it again.

NaNoWriMo is great for writers who need a boost getting their project started, or who just want to get some words down. Or who just want to say, “Hey! I wrote a book!” But finding and eliminating the NaNoCruft that creeps into my own novels can more difficult than imagined. So I think that for 2009, the main challenge I’ll set for myself in NaNoWriMo is to avoid as much NaNoCruft as possible during the actual writing, so that when I set to the task of editing the project later on, there will be that much less work for me to do.

The Problem with Hannah: Or, Learning to Love to Kill Your Babies (a rant on writing)

I got a rejection email today from a market that I had sold to before.  While I’m disappointed, of course, I’m also glad that the editor gave me a personal rejection, filled with solid suggestions for improving the story and a kind note saying that if the market did not have a strong policy against considering rewrites, he’d ask me for one.  This is the closest I’ve come to a sale since January; I’ll take my validation where I can.  Still, there’s sorrow to be drowned, and I’m going to drown it in yet more writing.  And dealing with a problem called Hannah.

The problem with Hannah is that she’s one of my favorite minor characters in The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster.  She’s mentioned for the first time in Chapter One; she has a brief scene in Chapter Three; and in Chapter Four, she dies.  And that, really, is her purpose: to die.  Her death is one of the turning points of the novel, one of those scenes which sets some characters on one path, and other characters on another.  It’s a great scene, I think, darker than the rest of the novel, but still a fun one.

But I really like Hannah.  As a character, she’s pretty nifty.  She’s based, very loosely, on some women that I’ve known, women that I’ve admired and enjoyed spending time with, and she’s the kind of character, I think, that shows up all too infrequently in genre fiction (or in any fiction, really).  I had lots of fun writing her scenes, and the people who have read the scenes with her have told me that she resonates strongly with them.

So today I started poking at the story, wondering if there’s a way I can give Hannah a stronger role.  Maybe I can spare her life.  Maybe she can crawl, broken and bloody, out of the trap she’s thrown into, and survive to the end of the story.  Or maybe it’s not really Hannah who dies, but someone else that looks so much like her that everyone thinks it is her, including the readers.  There’s got to be a way, I keep thinking, that I can spare Hannah, and have her live to tell her own story.

Unfortunately, there isn’t.  I’ve looked at the overall plot, and Hannah’s death is just too pivotal.  If I have her survive, then the changes that her death inspires in the other characters won’t be genuine.  If I give her more attention, develop her further, than her character will draw attention from the other characters.  If she lives, then one of the major themes of the novel withers into insignificance.

And so, Hannah must die.

This is one of the hardest parts of writing, it seems to me: striking out those elements that you love so much but which don’t advance the story.  It might be a lovely bit of prose that puts the finest sonnets of Shakespeare to shame but which does nothing to advance the plot.  It might be a brilliantly crafted scene that contributes nothing at all to the story.  It might be a devious plot complication that will have your readers gasping but which does nothing to develop your characters or strengthen your theme.  And, of course, it might be a beloved minor character whose death is so central to the plot that to have her survive is to kill the story; but to kill her off is to break your heart.  These are an author’s literary babies.  We must learn to kill them.

Even more importantly, we must learn to love killing them, because killing them means that the story is so much better.  I can imagine that Doctor Frankenstein must have wanted to add some more bolts to his creature’s head; they would have been stylish, certainly, and given the monster a certain panache, but in the end they would have just gotten in the way, overbalanced the monster’s head, and it would have fallen over before it could utter its first menacing moan.  (It helps to think of your own story as a lumbering, clumsy creature, moaning its way through the landscape and portrayed most effectively by Boris Karloff; really, it does.)  On the other hand, sometimes you can put those babies aside and use them later in another story.  When it came time to build a wife for the monster, I’m sure Doctor Frankenstein was glad that he had a few bolts left over from his earlier creation.  So perhaps that bit of prose that was beautifully crafted can end up somewhere else, as can that devious plot twist or that spiffy scene that you loved so much.  But for now, you must kill them; and you must be chortling with glee as you do so.  Writing is a dirty, bloody business, and the world is littered with the corpses of favorite characters killed before they ever got a chance to shine, as well as piles of prose and rooms full of clever scenes.

Hannah’s definitely a problem.  I might be able to write some other stories that feature her, but knowing that she will die in The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster will always make her stories at least a little tragic, no matter how clever and funny they are.  I think the only solution is to write her scene, kill her off as necessary, and drink a toast to her bravery.

Straight Ahead

I am a linear writer.  A very linear writer.  And what I mean by that is when I write a story, I start at the beginning, and write in chronological order, scene by scene, until I reach the end of the story.  I may rearrange scenes later, or insert a new scene at the beginning of the story or between two other scenes, but when my first draft emerges, it’s in sequence.

I know other writers who are very different; they have no problem whatsoever writing out of sequence, writing scenes as they come and worrying later about what order to put them in.  I’ve tried writing like that, but it feels so unnatural; like trying to eat with my ears, it just didn’t work.  I’ve given it a serious go; it’s not like I haven’t tried it and hypocritically passed judgement on it.  No, it just doesn’t work.  If I start thinking about writing non-linearly, then I start to wonder things like, "But what if I just end up skipping all the difficult scenes, and write only the fun ones?"

So, I write linearly.  I’ve made my peace with it.

The downside, though, is that I end up having to write those difficult scenes as I come to them.  I can’t just skip over them.  I’ve tried, but then my overdeveloped sense of guilt kicks in, and I can’t write anything else until I finish that other scene, at least with a token effort.  I can’t even write, "Finish this scene later", because then it feels like an incomplete brick in a wall.  When you’re building a brick wall, you can’t just mark a brick you don’t feel like working on and promise to come back to it later (I’ve laid bricks, so I know this is true).

One painful consequence is that my writing output is not consistent.  For example: I’ve been working on this one scene with Fred and his wife, Vivian, for nearly a week now.  It’s not meant to be a particularly touching or moving scene, but it’s meant to convey a lot about the two characters in some relatively subtle ways that I haven’t quite figured out yet.  I think it’s almost done, thank God, but it’s been a slow slog.  The last long scene I had to write, with Hank meeting Doctor Nefario for the first time, was much easier, and I pounded it out in a few hours.  During NaNoWriMo I can punch out these painful scenes quickly, but when I’m in a more serious draft, I just don’t feel good doing that; I need to put in at least a little bit of effort.

How linearly do you write?

Writing about Writing?

Since I started taking my writing seriously back in 2003, I’ve only published six stories (but gotten a heck of a lot of rejection slips), so I’m not sure I have a lot of writerly cred; at the same time, though, I feel like I’ve learned at least a little bit, and have some insight into how stories work and how good writing, in general, is done.

So my question to you all is, is it plausible for me to think that I have enough credibility as a writer to write a series of essays about writing technique, and have them taken seriously?