Saturday, January 29, 2011

January 29th Update

With a little bit of inspiration this evening, I pounded out 2,200 words of a new short story. It's a little bit shorter than many pieces of short fic I write. Typically, a story comes in around 5,000 words or so. This one is about 3,000 words in length.

Sometimes the shorter ones are harder to write because you have so much that you're trying to pack in and fewer words to say it. However, in its current form, this is a fairly complex piece from a first-person perspective. I don't think a reader would make it through 5,000 words for this would be too dense.

Funny how the shorter stuff can be the most challenging! At least the word count tonight puts me firmly in the "Average Night" category!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Taco Bell marketing wrapped in tortilla of lies!

Listen, Taco Bell is not fine cuisine.* You don't go there to have your taste buds stimulated by nuanced, hand-crafted fare that you can't find anywhere else. Truth be told, there's probably another Taco Bell around the corner anyway.

A lot has been made this week of a lawsuit filed against Taco Bell and its "beef." Specifically, the lawsuit claims the Bell's beefy offerings don't legally qualify as beef. The class-action suit alleges that the fast-food chain's "seasoned beef" contains only 35% meat...which falls outside the FDA's definition (the FDA says "beef" must contain at least 40% meat to be considered "beef"). The suit claims the rest of the beef-like-taco-filling substance is preservatives and filler.

(Side note: I'm more creeped out by the fact that something has to contain only 40% meat to be considered beef, but perhaps that's just me)

Taco Bell of course, is defending its product by issuing a statement and threatening a countersuit. The company says its beef, referred to in Taco Bell's inner sanctum as "taco meat filling," contains at least 88% meat. I'm sure there's a complicated formula involving a slide rule and all that.

The motive behind this tale of (obvious joke) where's the beef? The law firm suggests that the Bell does this to save money. And really, there's a good argument there. If I can sell you a taco with "35%" beef instead of one with "88%" beef, I'm saving a boatload o' cash on beef.

(Again, I long for the day when we get 100% beef, which Taco Bell says would taste just like ordinary ground beef because it'd be missing all those signature, zesty spices that bring its "taco meat filling" to less than 100% meat level!)

Saving money is the Taco Bell way. Got two bucks? Get a meal, yeah, with a side and a drink! Need a feast? Got about ten bucks or so? Buy a Taco Bell Party Pack! That's 12 crunchy shells filled with either 35% beef or 88%-beef-taco-meat filling! Taco Bell doesn't offer caviar, snooty wine, or cloth napkins. I'm not suggesting that the Bell carves up and liquefies human flesh. Of course, I also love that by saying "I'm not suggesting," I'm really saying, "I'm suggesting." But in all seriousness, this isn't Soylent Green.

The original was great...

But Phil Hartman's version was even greater! Especially the sequel: "Soylent Green is still made outta people! They didn't change the recipe like they said they were going to! It's still PEEEEEEEEOPLE!"

You have to understand the slippery slope this lawsuit has now placed Taco Bell on. First of all, you'll note the "Berry Pomegranate Fruitista Freeze" contains a whopping 1% actual pomegranate juice. Now, I'm a guy who knows his pomegranates, and I can tell you that's not a lot of juice. I think future Taco Bell menus will look something like this mock-up for their Fiesta Taco Salad:

What do all the asterisks mean?

1) Crispy Tortilla Bowl - This claim may not be verifiable. After all, no one played in a "Crispy Tortilla Bowl" in December or January. Nor did they play in the "Anne Adams Oogly-Boogly Bowl Presented by the Benjamin Harrison Home" or the "Matt Adams Manute Bol Benefiting Sudan."

2) Seasoned Ground Beef - Well, we know all about this. Should probably read "seasoned ground beef-like taco meat filling" or "kinda tacoey pseudomeat."

3) Reduced-Fat Sour Cream - It's white, doesn't really have a flavor. That's because reduced-fat is the complete opposite of "flavor-enriched." I prefer "Mexican-style Cool Whip-like cream topping."

4) Crispy Tortilla Strips - "The fried and salted remains of unleavened bread prepared from cornmeal."

5) Real Cheddar Cheese - By "real" they mean the bags they pour the stuff out of are real. Okay, I'm sure the cheese is, too.

6) Diced Ripe Tomatoes - Very ripe. Sort of diced, but really more just kind of cut. Probably sounds better than "red tomato-shape cube flavoring."

7) Hearty Beans - "Protein-enriched flavor pods in goo sauce."

8) Crisp Shredded Lettuce - "Sporadically hacked slime-greenery." The great thing is, sometimes it's crunchy, sometimes it slides right down. You never know what you're going to get!

9) Seasoned Rice - Okay, this one probably didn't need the asterisk. It's rice. It has flavoring...or seasoning if you must.

*The views of Matt Adams the author do not necessarily represent the views of Matt Adams' stomach, taste buds and their subsidiaries or representatives.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quick update

Sunday night, I was downed by a nasty norovirus, which left me feeling like Harry from "Dumb and Dumber" after Lloyd spiked his tea with TurboLax. Take that scene, multiply it by several times over the span of two-and-a-half days, and you get the idea. Sorry for the visual. Norovirus is typically something that sweeps through a cruise ship and sickens a bunch of people really did I miss the buffet and a show?

The virus also came along with a fever, body aches, and the general feeling that if I tried to walk to the bathroom, I'd keel right over. As you can imagine, it prevented me from getting any writing done, although I did reread a couple of stories on my iPhone (thank you, Dropbox!).

I finally started to feel a little better yesterday afternoon and managed to pound out 780 words of a short story idea that's been percolating for a while. So, I managed to avoid Tayshaun Prince, but ended up cold from the field, using free throws and a few jump shots to fall well below an average night.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Developing a signature style

Okay, I wrote about writing tics yesterday. The post gave me a couple of ideas for some new blog content, so I thought I'd go ahead and write a follow-up.

Earlier, I wrote about my love for keycards, an inexplicable, unrequited love affair that I should not speak of anymore. Yet, I can guarantee you that keycards will continue to appear in my work...unless I can devise some sort of foot scanner (credit that idea to a dear friend of mine).

Writers have persistent themes they return to time and time again. Michael Crichton, for example, was the king of sciency-awesomeness. When you read an excerpt from a Crichton book, you know it's a Crichton book. The same thing can be said about most skilled authors. It could be a word or a phrase or a theme, but there's something recognizable about their style. The great ones are this way; their works are memorable, their turns of phrases enduring. Your more forgettable, hack writers (who's got two thumbs and is a hack writer...THIS GUY!) churn out Twinkie writing that fills you up for three seconds and then makes you want to have another. Eventually, you realize you've eaten the whole box of Twinkies and you're still hungry because the snack wasn't very fulfilling.

As I think of the different books and short stories I've worked on, I've identified a few things that help define, for better or worse, my own style.

Sports references. I'm an unabashed sports fan and I bring that to my work. You'll find many of my books have a character who follows sports. In some cases, the book may actually be about sports (Seven and 17th Parallel are both books that mix science fiction with pro sports). This fandom typically sticks pretty close to home, too. I enjoy putting in characters who are fans of the Indianapolis Colts or the Cincinnati Reds or Indiana Basketball or Notre Dame football. Let's face it, enough characters in popular culture are Yankees fans...why not add a little Midwestern sports sensibility to that? I also use a lot of sports analogies ("He drew his gun as quickly as Manning reads the defense and releases"--that's an awful piece of writing).

Midwestern sensibility. I think those of us who hail from the Midwest sometimes feel like we don't exist. News and sporting events that happen on the east and west coasts often seem to get higher priority than things that happen in the middle of Indiana or Iowa. Since many media companies are headquartered on the coasts, the Midwest often feels lost in the shuffle. "They" make fun of our Big Ten and our backward ways (you know, like saying "hello" to people). Many of my characters have a background in the Midwest or the action is set in the Midwest. I like characters I can relate to; people I'd like to go see a movie with. My work often reflects this.

Don't push your Midwestern sensibilities on me, pal.

Sense of humor. I'm not the king of the bad pun, but I'm second-in-line for the throne. I love making characters who have a sense of humor or putting characters who don't have a sense of humor in funny situations. Sarcasm runs rampant throughout my work and characters because these things make me smile (and I hope they make other people smile, too). I'm just not the brooding writer type who locks himself away for hours on end to talk about why the sun won't rise the next day (at least, not typically). If I'm going to be entertained, I'm probably going to need humor...or explosions. Sometimes both.

Absurdity. I'm not Mr. High Concept or anything like that, but I like a certain element of absurdity in my stories. This can lead to funny situations or head-scratching moments of "what the heck is going on?" Some of these situations can be downright weird (stories like "Swatch, Guardian of Time" -- in which an idiotic Time Ranger mucks up history by mistake -- and "To the Infinity Room!" -- in which a slightly unhinged man collects items from alternate realities -- come to mind). I guess I like things a little offbeat.

Absurd? Blue is absurd. The idea of turning him into glue is not.

Pop culture references. In real life, I'm a pop culture machine, a man capable of conducting conversations in nothing but MovieSpeak. I take a random moment from life and tell others how "it's like that one scene in The Naked Gun." It's annoying. My writing reflects that. In some stories, the pop culture references come at a fast and furious pace, thrown in like some poorly-produced spoof movie (you know, you throw out enough things, something's bound to stick). Maybe a particular character quotes "Star Wars" or describes the bad guy as looking "kind of like a crack-addled Billy Zane." It's a wink-wink to readers who get it and probably a little confounding to those who don't (learn the Wikipedia, my clueless friends...and the IMDB).

Sometimes I mix pop culture references AND sports.

It's science fictiony-fantastical. I do have some ideas that are a little more grounded, but most of my stories have a speculative bent. That means they're set on another planet, involve advanced technology, or include aliens. I love tropes like time travel and alternate realities (each could really have its own category in this list). Oh, and robots. Yes, give me the robots, be they simple, kind, despotic, evil, or cultured.

We need a hero. A protagonist doesn't always have to be a hero and many stories are about people who are the very definition of cowards. However, my work tends to find at least something heroic about a particular character. Whether that character is a rogue like Sheridan from Sheridan's Hammer, who decides he's had enough of a repressive government or Swatch, who tries his best but usually messes up in his Time Ranger duties, I try to find the most noble part of a character and cultivate it.

Sometimes, you just need a hero.

For some people, you have to look REALLY hard to find something heroic. And then there are lost causes.

Bureaucracies suck. From government to big businesses and even the church, bureaucracies are a part of life. Bureaucracies are evil, soulless machines composed of flesh, paperwork, and endless procedures. They do more harm than good, allow things to slip through the cracks, overlook important details in the name of productivity, and throw responsibility to the next person in the chain. They are so head-scratchingly inefficient that the only real choice is to make fun of them. Mercilessly.

No one knows the horrors of bureaucracies like this guy.

Media and Mass Communication 101. I work in TV news. I studied journalism in college. News and media are things I understand intimately and I like to use them in different capacities. Sometimes it's as simple as making an offhand reference to a TV news report; sometimes it's a story set in the world of TV news. One short story, for example, follows a live news crew forced to cover a story on a chicken wing shortage; the story soon changes to some sort of mutant invasion. In my book Seven, I employ a broadcasting team with announcers named Bob and Skip. At certain points in the book, I let them take over the play-by-play duties during game action instead of writing long, descriptive game summaries. That book also takes a good, hard look at sports media culture.

News team assemble!

Meta-fiction! I like to give readers something extra and try to think of ways to make my books stand out. One way I like to do that is to create meta-fiction. The concept isn't that hard to explain: let's say a character references a non-existent book during the course of the novel. I might add an appendix that contains an excerpt from the fake book mentioned (or that excerpt may appear in the book proper). My most complex example of this to date is I, Crimsonstreak. The book's narrative itself is on the short's only about 62,000 words (and actually probably needs to be beefed up quite a bit). The work itself, however, totals 85,000 words. In addition to the main story, the novel includes "secret" hero and villain dossiers, newspaper articles of past exploits from characters, magazine feature articles, journal entries, and even a few newspaper columns the main character wrote when he was in college. Admittedly, this idea got a little out of control and required a handwritten timeline of dates and important events. I have similar ideas for other books. Seven, for example, is a baseball book. So one of these days I want to map out a schedule for the baseball team and come up with box scores for every game of the season, along with game write-ups, web copy, etc. It would also be fun to do a podcast of some of the play-by-play calls from important moments from key games. For Sheridan's Hammer, one of the central conflicts centers around two warring religions. This book includes verses from two fake holy texts. They're not fully-formed pieces of meta-fiction, but they're intended to give the universe a "real" feel.

Meta-fiction? This comic may be the king of it.

Time to play. Sometimes, writing in chronological order is a drag. It's also something that many stories require. I enjoy playing with flashbacks and framing devices; you've seen this concept a hundred times in movies and books. You know, the book starts with the character walking the plank and you flashback to how he got there until he's on the plank and the action picks up from there. For whatever reason, the movie "Maverick" immediately comes to mind, although there are plenty stories done in that style. I like to play with timelines and flashbacks, but it can be difficult work. These stories often require a detailed outline to make everything click. In some cases, using a flashback narrative structure has saved a story. One piece of short fic, "Last Stand on Cyclonus Seven," probably would've been scrapped if not for a flashback structure. I knew where I wanted the story to go, but as I wrote it chronologically, it didn't seem to work. It began to drag. So, I made that story work backward. The end comes first and the narrative travels backward between the present and what led to it. It got relatively complicated and I had to make section headings (i.e., "Ten Hours Ago"). I'm pleased with how that story turned out, but it wasn't working until I started to play with time a little bit.

I'm sure I've left out something, but these are the things that spring to mind when it comes to my "signature" writing style. Is it really different from how other writers approach their work? Not really, I'm sure. In fact, one thing about writing is that you're never as unique or creative as you think; there are plenty of people with more panache and style than me. However, to write, one must have confidence, and believing your work to have your unique voice and style is part of developing that confidence.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Writing tics

Whether they want to or not, most people have nervous tics. It can be a hand brushing aside a perpetually errant curl, a scratch of the nose, a sniff between sentences. I have them; I stroke my chin when carefully considering an answer or scratch the back of my neck when nervous (this drives my wife absolutely bonkers!). Sometimes I squeeze my hands together when saying something that makes me uncomfortable.

It's human nature to have these little crutches that we've developed over the years.

Writers have them, too.

I'm not talking about aspects of my writing that are recognizable (I'm going to do a separate post on things I often find in my writing...ya keycards). I'm talking about tics in my writing that are unnecessary and used as filler. They're things I don't realizing I'm doing until I take a good look at a manuscript.

My worst offenders are listed below.

In fact. I find this in a lot of stories I write. In fact, you'll see it in blog posts, too (see what I did there? Yeah, I'm rolling my eyes, too). I don't really even know what "in fact" means because I use it so casually, even in situations in which there's no actual "fact" to refer to. My book The Franchise uses the phrase only four times over its 73,000 words. A previous draft from last year included "in fact" 11 times. I can guarantee that earlier drafts used it much more often. An unrevised version of my book Seven uses "in fact" 20 times. A rough draft of Sheridan's Hammer invokes it 17 times. Sometimes, "in fact" is used in a character's dialogue. I'm more forgiving about those. I use the phrase often in description and it's a particularly weak way of writing something. I will have to be very careful in editing to remove this phrase.

Just. Ick. It's just one of those things. I employ this word much too often and I don't even realize it. I just scanned the most recent version of The Franchise; it's the draft that has the most polish. The word "just" appears more than 240 times! Again, it's probably more forgivable if a particular character uses it in dialogue. But if every character uses's a writing tic. The word also appears too often in description. Sheridan's Hammer, which honestly I haven't given a second or third coat of paint to yet, uses "just" 260 times! That means there are a lot of pages where the word appears multiple times. Need to trim some fat from the manuscript? Just start with just! To put this in perspective, for the 365-page draft, I could eliminate almost an ENTIRE PAGE by taking out every instance of "just."

Almost. Not quite as prolific as the junk word "just," "almost" still appears too often. I'm using another book as a measuring stick here, but The Franchise includes "almost" 43 times. Sheridan's Hammer includes 28 uses of the word. I, Crimsonstreak has 31 instances of "almost."

There's. There's good writing and there's lazy writing. Sometimes, "there's" is the best you've got. But 98.5% of the time (yes, I've done a formal study and that's the scientific percentage), you can find a better alternative and a much more eloquent way of writing something. I, Crimsonstreak uses the phrase 99 times in its 85,000 words. Sheridan's Hammer uses it 30 times. The Franchise includes 38 uses. The higher percentage in Crimsonstreak is likely due to its first-person perspective; the writing in that book is a bit more conversational throughout the narrative. I know I can find several instances in which I can take the phrase out or use another one.

Usually. I'm pretty good at spotting this one. After going through some of my manuscripts, I don't use "usually" as often as I thought I would. It's not an infection like "just."

Pretty. I don't mean this like "the girl is pretty." I'm using this as a qualifier; "he's a pretty good guy" or "that's a pretty bad idea." I'm sure I've used it in its traditional sense in some of my writing, but it's usually used as an adverb. This one varies from work to work. I, Crimsonstreak is the worst offender; "pretty" appears in the novel approximately 70 times. Usage in my other books is about half that number.

What's the big deal about all this? Well, self-editing is difficult. I know what I've been trying to do and understand what I'm trying to say. When words are missing, my mind usually fills them in (I think I'll do a separate post this week on different approaches for proofreading via computer and hard copy). Since the words I mentioned are my own writing tics, sometimes they're hard for me to spot. That's why you need exceptionally good concentration when editing your own work. If you struggle too much with finding these things, you'd better track down an editor who can do more than simply read for content.

What about you? What writing tics infect your work?

Friday, January 21, 2011

For love or money

Duotrope's Digest lists dozens upon dozens of magazines and online publications. It's one of the reasons it made the list of my favorite writing websites. It's such an exclusive list, in fact, that nobody really cares. I mean...big deal, right? I don't even have a golden seal to give to those websites. Perhaps I should design one this weekend...

Anyway, my total lifetime earnings from writing amount to...well...practically nothing from a monetary standpoint. I've placed stories in publications that don't pay or offer token compensation. "This Mutant Life," offers $8 U.S. for stories or authors can choose to take a second contributors copy of the mag (which is what I usually do). "A Thousand Faces" originally operated under a royalty-sharing plan among authors. That model has since changed and writers will get $10 for their stories.

I recently learned that one of my short stories will be published by "Wily Writers of Speculative Fiction". For the first time, a story will come with a paycheck. It's not a lot--I'll still have to save up for that Writing Yacht I've always dreamed of--but at least it's something.

Everyone has to start somewhere.

I equate the business side of writing to sports (and those who know me collectively roll their eyes, smack their foreheads, and scream, "DUH!"). Single-A ball is getting published by some of the smaller presses and publications. Sure, these may not have the "pull" of some of the larger publications that pay a lot more, but you have to start somewhere. And it's not like it's easy to place a story in these publications either. The editors receive hundreds of submissions and whittle their way down to ten or twelve stories. Just because the publication is smaller doesn't mean the standard of quality suffers. Most of these places pay either nothing or a token amount.

I'm not ashamed to admit it: I miss the Richmond Roosters.

So you made it here. You're not finished. Not even close.

Next is Double-A ball. Now, you're starting to earn some recognition and place your stories in publications that pay semi-pro rates. This still isn't a significant income (unless you've placed A TON OF STORIES AND I MEAN A TON), but at least you're getting something. We're talking in the ballpark of one cent or so a word. For a 5,000 word story, it's about 50 bucks. Consider the time spent outlining, writing, rewriting, editing, and sending off your submission...and you're certainly not making much per hour!

You're rubbing elbows with future stars and washed-up pros. Embrace the former, don't turn into the latter.

So, you place a couple stories in Double-A publications, and now you've moved up to Triple-A ball. This is where the competition is getting really tough; there are fewer Triple-A publications out there, plenty of talented writers, and larger amounts of compensation on the line. Your Triple-A publications pay pro rates...that's five cents or more per word. If you can sell a 5,000 word story, you're getting $250-$500 or so. You sell a couple of those a month consistently, and things start to add up. BUT IT'S HARD.

Even if you make it here, you'll have to produce. Or it's back to the minors, baby.

The Big Leagues? Well, this isn't a perfect analogy because I've been referring mostly to short stories in this post. But to me, the Big Leagues is getting your book published. This typically includes an advance...although first-time, untested authors shouldn't expect to earn thousands upon thousands of dollars. If your name isn't Stephen King or Dan Brown or James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell or Nora Roberts or someone people have actually heard of, that "big advance" won't be that big.

Now to completely nullify everything I've written so far. I've talked about pay scales and earning money for my work. Thing is, it'd be nice to earn a little coin from this and my ultimate goal is to be able to do that. However, and I mean this with as much conviction as I can muster on this random blog, it's not all about the money. And I don't mean this in the pro athlete-in-a-contract-dispute way.

I write because I can. I write because I feel I have a gift for it. I write because there are characters and stories I want to tell and share with others. Are they all great? No! Are some of them good? Maybe! Will anything ever become of this? I don't know! But I do know that I'm passionate about this; that it's 2:42 in the morning and I've had creative writers block but still somehow managed to muster enough energy and effort to write this blog post.

And so even though I'm not raking in the dough from all my great ideas, even though one of my stories can get a rejection faster than Peyton Manning can read the defense and find the open guy, I will continue to write. I have become fully vested in this venture because I believe I can do this. A wise man once said, "If you can dream it, you can do it" (note: that's actually a quote from the coach in "Saving Silverman," so it's probably not the best place to get inspiration). In writing career terms, I'm mired in Single-A ball and hoping to get called up to Double-A. Although if the pros call, I will pick up.

Reggie Miller Writing Continuum 1/20

Creatively tapped out for the night, I can only send off a story submission and revise a work in progress.

I actually trimmed words from a story, thus making my word count a NEGATIVE word count (although the words in this blog post probably offset that).


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Awesome co-workers come through

I have great co-workers. How do I know this? One of my buddies won a Jim Irsay contest and gave me one of the two Colts division champs hats he won. In the background, you can see my work keycard and the new Colts lanyard that another co-worker gave me (it's relevant because of this).

How awesome is that?

I love keycards

Okay, I have a problem, people.

Keycards. I love 'em.

They're one of my favorite tropes in stories and I'm not exactly sure why. Seriously, as I think of the books and stories I've written, I realize I lean way too much on the venerable keycard.

During the introductory scenes of one of my books, a character expresses his love for "advanced technology." What is he doing? He's showing someone how to use a keycard!

In another book, a character has to go to a sublevel. How does she get there? You guessed it: keycard!

Yet in another book, a character (in a sublevel!) grants some visitors access to another room by swiping his keycard.

This is a sickness. Keycards aren't that exciting. I know this; I have a keycard. You know what it does? It gets me into the building where I work. That's mind-boggling in its awesomeness, isn't it?

I know I'm not the only person with an affinity for keycards; they play roles in countless movies and books. Yet I can tell you that in three of the four books I've written, there's a scene that involves a keycard. It's almost like a calling card for my work! It's completely absurd.

The keycard epidemic seems to have left my short stories alone for the most part. I can only think of a couple of stories that involve keycards. I have about 30 stories, and only three of those feature a scene with them.

Am I that uncreative that I yearn for keycards in every story?

Here are some possible explanations:

I have too many secret places: Two of my books have secret laboratories. One is a government facility, and we all know how government facilities...especially ones with secret extra security. The other is a privately-run lab. It's super-super-super secret. Security is a requirement...and how best to keep the place secure than by limiting access with KEYCARDS!!??

There's a subtext I'm hitting people over the head with: I'm giving readers access to my world in a figurative sense by allowing them to read my work. To make that more real, I create worlds in which keycards are must-have items, a "key" that grants readers entrance into my universe.

I've seen too many "secret facility" movies and have run out of good ideas of my own: This is entirely possible. I've seen a lot of spy movies. Perhaps I'm projecting those onto my work?

I think they're cool, even though they're not: Nothing is awesome with a side of awesome-sauce like a freaking keycard! How awesome is it to have a card that lets you into a place no one else can go (well, other than the 200 other people that work in the building)?

I never had a keycard as a kid: This is a possible explanation. When I was a kid, my parents let me roam freely around the house, unencumbered by the requirement of needing a keycard to get into the bathroom. Perhaps if they'd given me one back then, I wouldn't find keycards so novel?

It's Michael Crichton's fault: Sure, blame the late author of Jurassic Park. It's not like that book or The Andromeda Strain or any of his other high-tech books ever involved secret facilities and keycards.

So, I've made progress tonight. I've realized I have an addiction to keycards. Any suggestions on how to fix this?

Your Reggie Miller Writing Continuum Update 1/19

Barely, just barely...I managed to have an average night. I wrote a reflective piece and then worked on my killer robot invasion story. Combined, I ended up with a shade more than 1,500 words. Very close to just free throws and jumpers, but I ended up making my average.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Your Reggie Miller Writing Continuum Update

I committed 1,900 words to the page tonight, falling more surely into the AVERAGE NIGHT category than a mid-range jumper from 31 himself.

I'm about finished with the story I started yesterday and think it will end up being about 5,000 words before I go back and revise.

I also sent a submission today. I actually wrote it specifically for one anthology, but was very pleased with how it turned out. I decided to send it first to a publication that pays a little bit more. If it gets accepted there, it would be awesome. If not, I'll send it to the anthology series I originally intended it for. The publication I sent it to is usually quick about rejections, so I should have plenty of time to re-send it if needed (the deadline for the anthology I intended it for is March 1st).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Latest Reggie Miller Writing Continuum Update

I started a new short story tonight about a guy who works at a robot tech support company. Of course, he doesn't care about his job and something is going to go horribly wrong with one of his company's production lines! Will he care about the problem or fix it?

I don't know...but what I DO know is that I have made enough progress on the Reggie Miller writing continuum to have an AVERAGE NIGHT!

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

I remember the exact moment (if not the date) that put me on this path toward pursuing writing.

In late September of 2007, I read something about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, a kind of American Idol-style writing contest. If your book wins the contest, you get an advance and a publishing contract. Before that moment, I had dabbled in writing a little bit; I had a couple of book ideas and a paltry outline or two written in a notebook. I'd completed about 40 pages or so of a book idea that had been percolating since high school. I'd worked in an extremely haphazard fashion on the book, but it wasn't fully-formed and or remotely near the zip code of "complete."

The contest started accepting submissions a week after I'd read about it. Let me put this into perspective: I had 40 pages (back then, I knew nothing about manuscript formatting or word count, so all I can go with is pages while recounting the memory) and a week to write a finished novel. At that moment, something switched on in my brain. I worked strange hours back then, overnights from 2am to 10am. So for several crazy days, I went to work, wrote for nine or ten hours when I got home, grabbed a couple hours of sleep, went to work, wrote some more, grabbed some sleep, etc. I proceeded to do this for five out of seven days (a couple of weekend days allowed me a somewhat normal schedule).

By the time I was finished, nearly feverish from a lack of sleep and creative output, my book had exploded from 40 pages to about 270. Looking back, I understand how little I knew about the writing process and the reality of what it takes to "make it." That book didn't stand a chance! It wasn't long enough, the writing was hurried and clunky, and it needed a severe rewrite and edit.

I've come to realize that the short-term glory of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award pales in comparison to the real journey every author must go through. In Star Wars terms, it's the quick and easy path (yes, I just compared a novel-writing contest to the Dark Side of the Force).

I have a great sense of pride in that book, however. Even four years later, it needs a lot of work. The prose has been sharpened, the characters are better defined and the writing isn't quite as hackneyed, but it's far from finished. I've moved onto other novels and am currently in a phase where I enjoy writing shorter pieces. I know I'll return to that first book someday and turn it into something special.

Hey...this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest kicks off next week. Maybe I have time for a quick edit and polish...

Nah. I think I'll write a new one instead...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reggie Miller Writing Continuum Status

I revised and sent off a story today, but succeeded in writing a somewhat coherent blog post on writing in the horror genre that really didn't talk much about the horror genre. Thus, I give myself a technical foul, dock myself a few words, and end up getting blocked by Tayshaun Prince. There's still some Sunday left, however, and the status could change.

The horror of horror

One of the most important things for writers to do is challenge themselves.

It's also one of the hardest things to do.

I know what I write; I have an idea what I excel at. I like stories with adventure and excitement; maybe a little bit of suspense. The good guy usually wins, although not in the most obvious way. Somewhere along the journey, there will be something so absurd, I'll have to laugh (and hope the reader will chuckle, too). I employ, for better or worse, a lot of pop culture references. At least one character in the story will like sports or make a sports reference (often, this will involve referring to the New England Patriots as "evil"). A character or characters will have a background in the Midwest...that's where I'm from, that's what I know.

Of course, these guidelines are not absolute. I have several stories that have none of these characteristics. It's hard to work an Indianapolis Colts reference into a story set in another galaxy, even if it's entirely possible that Peyton Manning was sent from beyond to save pro football in Indianapolis.

So, I play with these conventions and themes. I embrace them as part of my style. Writing reflects who you are and you shouldn't be afraid to inject some of that into your stories. You just have to be careful not to fall into self-parody or predictability...something I admit I fall prey to from time to time. Usually, I catch it. Usually.

I started this post off by commenting that writers need to challenge themselves. This means trying out different styles, settings, and characters. I've had limited success in the superhero genre, but I can't write those types of stories forever. I can't turn every story into a cape-and-cowl affair.

I've tried some different types of stories and narrative devices, but one I can't seem to nail is horror. It comes down to enjoyment and familiarity with the genre. When I think of horror stories, I think of tragic ghosts and vampires and serial hook-murderers and grim stories about death and killing. That's not a fair assessment of the genre, I know. I just don't enjoy reading those types of stories or watching those types of movies. I'm not the type who picks up a book or watches a movie to have his spine-tingled.

Since I have a limited background in the genre, everything seems to come out too formulaic when I attempt to write it. A "great twist" ends up being something horror readers have seen a dozen times before.

The truth is, I have no real desire to write in that genre, but if the right anthology or the right idea comes to mind, I'd consider dabbling in it. I just think I'd have to read a lot more horror stories to really "get" that particular style.

And that's really the point I'm making here. In order to write, you have to read. Otherwise, you'll just end up rehashing familiar story ideas and themes without even realizing it. And no one will want to publish your work.

Saturday's Reggie Miller Writing Continuum Status

Saturday's final tally on the Reggie Miller Writing Continuum: 3,200 words and a nearly complete short story.

Sold-Out Conseco, baby!!!

Reggie Miller Writing Continuum

Last weekend, I compared my writing process to Reggie Miller, specifically his reputation as a dead-eye streak shooter. This weekend, I'm taking it a step further.

Below you'll find the "Reggie Miller Writing Continuum," an informal tool that I will begin using to measure my writing progress. It may refer to a daily number of words I'm writing or it may refer to the progress I'm making on a short story. Basically, it's a stupid idea and it makes me laugh.

Here's the quick rundown:

1. Blocked (0-500 words)

2. Free Throws & Jumpers (501-1,500 words)

3. Average Night (1,501-3,000 words)

4. Sold-Out Conseco (3,001-5,000 words)

5. Reggie at the Garden (5,001-6,000+ words)

Friday, January 14, 2011

O Cinematic Quandary

My wife is off tomorrow on a rare Saturday...she usually works on the weekends. So we decided we wanted to do something. We had planned to go see the Titanic exhibit at the Indiana State Museum, but the exhibit appears to be sold out.

So we're going to go with plan B and go see a movie. My wife went through the options this morning and two choices became readily apparent: The King's Speech and Season of the Witch.

My wife and I both got a chuckle out of that this morning; it's hard to think of movies that could be as diametrically opposed as these two. The King's Speech is an Oscar contender that's getting great buzz for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. The other is a Nicolas Cage-fueled schlock fest.

Of course, Cage did win that one Oscar that one time. I certainly don't hate Nicolas Cage's just on the continuum of perceived "good taste" (The King's Speech) and "you'd be better off burning your money" (Season of the Witch), we really couldn't have come up with such divergent choices if we'd actually tried.

So again, the decision is this: The King's Speech, a smaller, intimate movie about the relationship between a king with a stutter and the tutor brought in to help him in a time of national crisis:


A movie starring Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman that will undoubtedly have some preposterous ending that includes a fistfight between Nicolas Cage and a demonically-possessed woodland creature. Or maybe there's a witch involved:

Lest I need consider this decision any more, I submit to you the following criteria from the Cage classic The Wicker Man.

Exhibit A: "Not the bees! Not the bees! Ouch! MY EYES! MY EEEEEEEYES!"

Exhibit B: Nicolas Cage punches a woman. He's wearing a bear suit.

It really isn't much of a decision at all, is it?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How Juggling Multiple Projects Feels Like Return of the Jedi

I don't know about other writers, but I tend to stick to one project at a time, see it to completion, and then move onto my next endeavor.

This isn't a firm rule. Sometimes, I'll write an outline for a project while I'm technically all-in writing another one. It happened a couple of weeks ago, when I saw three different short story anthologies that I wanted to submit a story to. My brain just started firing off ideas, and as soon as one came, the next one followed, and I wanted to write them all at the same time.

This is not possible.

It needs to be one thing at a time...or does it?

Everyone has a different writing process with varying quirks, rhythms, and paces. I get so zoned in on something that I focus entirely on that one thing...until another great story idea comes into mind. The process bears a striking similarity to a scene from Return of the Jedi. It's still my favorite of the Star Wars movies (I know, I know...I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out "you've lost all credibility" and were suddenly silenced).

The scene at the Sarlacc Pit has entirely too much going on. Allow me to draw some parallels.

ROTJ goal: Escape from Jabba's sailbarge with everyone intact.

My goal: Write a story.

ROTJ status: Oh crap, there's a gunner!

My status: Wait, there's another great anthology series looking for stories with talking penguins! I have a story idea that involves a talking penguin!

ROTJ status: Lando's overboard! Maybe we'd better save him...

My status: Hey, this anthology magazine needs stories about vigilantes. I'm a superhero guy...I have tons of stories about vigilantes. I should send it right now!

ROTJ status: Now Boba Fett's coming!

My status: No, no. Forget about the vigilante thing. I need to focus. I need to stop thinking about these other stories. I have to finish what I started!

ROTJ status: More bad buys arrive!

My status: Aw, you're killing me, Duotrope's Digest. You want a story about mutant chickens!? I love mutant chickens...

ROTJ status: Han takes care of Fett, you know, "the galaxy's most feared bounty hunter." Geez!

My status: That was surprisingly easy.

ROTJ status: Leia chokes Jabba!

My status: Wait. Am I writing about mutant chickens, talking penguins, or vigilantes? Maybe I should fold all three into the story I'm working on RIGHT NOW.

ROTJ status: The Sarlacc has Lando!

My status: The vigilante story. That's what I should work on.

ROTJ status: Salacious Crumb is eating Threepio's eye!

My status: Somehow, this will all coalesce...

ROTJ status: And everyone gets home safely!

My status: Hey, I have four finished stories. Heck yeah! Where am I?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Office Work, Outta Sight

So you want to be a writer?

You have grand visions of unleashing your heartfelt creations and witty, finely-crafted prose onto an unsuspecting public that will shower you with praise and demand more, more, more!


It's okay; you can admit it. I used to think the same way, too. I thought my ingenuity would be glaringly apparent to any publisher or literary agent who had the privilege of reading something I decided to send to them.

Of course, a funny thing happened on the way to writing immortality.


It seemed agents and editors did not recognize the finely-tuned literary pedigree I didn't have. They didn't want my book; didn't want the query letter I took five minutes to write. They didn't want to publish the short story with the "you'll never see it coming!" twist that I found so clever and fresh because they'd seen it before.

The point that I'm backing into here is that publishing is a business. I am far from a successful author; so far away, in fact, that I have a hard time even referring to myself as a writer. I've had a few short stories published in a niche genre (superhero fiction) in publications that are so obscure, they may not even be the first search result that pops up in Google (but I've got nothing but love for "A Thousand Faces" and "This Mutant Life"). I haven't had a single book published, although a literary agent did request one of my manuscripts (before soundly rejecting it, of course).

Yet, as I begin to build my Flagging Writing Empire, I've realized something: there's more to writing than just writing. And there's more to writing than just creative writing. Like poor Milton pictured way above this paragraph, you've gotta do some office work.

I'm not the most organized person in the world; just ask my wife. I tend to file things away in a spatial manner; certain bills go on certain stacks on the kitchen table where they'll sit until I take care of them. I have no file box or organizational structure in place. If my wife allowed it, the room where I write would be filled with book and story manuscripts.

If my wife didn't get on me, scenes like this would litter the house.

But if you want to write, you'll need to get organized. You'll have to do some extra legwork beyond just sitting in front of your computer or grabbing a notebook and writing. Even I, the man who never met an organizational principle he actually liked, have had to learn this. The things I've done are simple and range from time-consuming to "it takes 30 seconds."

Here are a few things I've learned:

Email address committed specifically to writing endeavors. No one in their right mind wants to deal with someone who sends emails from an address like I suggest registering for a Yahoo or Gmail account that uses your name and is separate from the email address you use for friends. This does a couple of things: first, it removes any hint of a silly email address that may be frowned upon by an editor or publisher; second, it proves that you are taking a business-like approach to your writing career by virtue of a simple email registration; third, it forces you to do nothing but correspond in "author terms" when you log into that email account (for example, there are no Facebook notifications to see, no contests you've registered for, no sale emails to browse through in that email account).

Research, research, research! This is probably the biggest downer of them all. Writing already involves plenty of research to make the worlds you create feel real and "lived in." But the kind of research I'm talking about here has more to do with looking up editors and agents who are a good fit for your work. I, for instance, wouldn't want to send my work to someone who specializes in non-fiction crime books. I write fiction; not only is there little chance of that editor/agent accepting my work, it'll make me look stupid. I have to find places that provide the best fit for my work; even then, it's an uphill battle to get published.

More research, research, research! Even after you've found publications or agents that fit with your work, you're not finished yet. If you have any hope of submitting, you'll have to sort through dozens of different submission processes. Some agents want only a query letter, some want a query letter, a synopsis, and the first five pages of your manuscript. Others want the query and the first 50 pages of the book. One agent wants the synopsis and manuscript pasted into the body of your email; the other says it's okay to send those as attachments. Some agencies have on-line forms where you enter the information and then send it off.

In the world of short story submissions, things are fairly standard. However, you'll still find plenty of variations. Many publications want you to use a specific font; others demand that you single space. One place wants you to send your file in Rich Text Format (.rft), while another wants only Microsoft Word (.doc, but NOT .docx). In addition, some publications use an on-line submission form. Even those vary; one website may have you upload your .doc or .rtf file into their system while another wants you to copy and paste the entire story into a text box!

There are many different variations regarding the submission process; learning and following them will make you look professional and prevent your submission from getting deleted unread for failing to follow the guidelines. It will not, however, guarantee a successful submission, since that's purely subjective.

Learn about the writing process from other authors and agents. Late last night (or early this decide) I posted links to my favorite writing websites. There are an infinite number of these types of websites, and the links I listed are nothing more than a starting point. However, you can learn a great deal about the publishing process by visiting these sites, even if you do nothing more than simply look at some of the "essentials" sections provided by those who run them. I know it's not that much fun to go through and read, read, read...but if you have any hope of being successful, you'll devote some time to doing just that.

The spreadsheet is your friend. When I first started submitting work, I kept notes in my trusty notebook that listed the publication, the novel/story, the date I submitted, and the eventual response. It involved sending out the email, jotting down the notes on paper, and then putting the notebook away. It wasn't a bad process; it was actually fairly well organized (especially for me!). But as I began sending out more and more submissions, I began losing track. The solution: Microsoft Excel. I have two basic spreadsheets that I use: one for agents and my novels; the other for short story submissions. Each time I send something out, I open Excel and quickly fill in the pertinent information. This helps me avoid the embarrassment of sending the same submission to the same publication or agent. It also helps me see what projects I'm waiting on a response for.

I realize none of these concepts are earth-shattering. However, writers can be a scatter-brained, finicky lot resistant to organization and structure outside of the worlds they create. But there's more to writing than just putting your ideas down on the page and hoping someone wants to read them. In order to make sure others travel to the places you create and spend time with the characters you've crafted, you have to get your work out there. And, yes, that involves office work, whether you like it or not.

What about you? Are there any strategies you use to help stay organized? How frustrating do you find the "office work" side of writing?

My favorite writing websites

There are a ton...a TON of great websites available for anyone interested in writing. I visit several different sites each week to learn about publishing, craft, trends, and much more.

Some of my favorites are listed below; just be aware that there are many, many, many more websites to explore (in fact, Writer's Digest lists 101 great sites annually!).

There Are No Rules: There are few people with a better understanding of the publishing industry than Jane Friedman. She's on the cutting edge of everything--social media, e-publishing--and has strong ideas on how authors and publishers can promote their work. On her blog through Writer's Digest, you'll find a treasure trove of information. And her "Best Tweets for Writers" wrap-up at the end of the week is invaluable. Find her on Facebook immediately! Oh...oh...she's a native Hoosier!

Nathan Bransford's Blog: Mr. Bransford is a former literary agent who is now "a publishing civilian working in the tech industry." His book Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow is due out very soon. Having worked as an agent, Mr. Bransford has an incredible amount of insight into the industry. When I read his posts, I usually walk away with a smile. His advice on query letters is especially helpful.

The Query Shark is not for the faint of heart; only the bravest (or dullest) writers should even consider wading into the choppy waters. The Shark will quickly turn any query letter into chum. The process is merciless and matter-of-fact. Criticism is always valid and never too mean-spirited. But even if you don't submit a letter for the shark to chew to pieces, simply going through the archives and seeing past query letters proves invaluable.

Duotrope's Digest: This is a fantastic resource, especially for short story writers. The updated, searchable database allows you to look for publications that fit your particular story genre. Do you have a crime fiction novella? You can search for publications that are looking for/accepting that very thing! The site also tracks publications' response times and acceptance so you have an idea what to expect. This site is targeted with laser-like focus on fans of comic books and superheroes. The person who runs the site is a former editorial assistant who likes to engage those who comment and participate. He'll also gladly open a review forum for any writers who would like to get feedback on their work. I emailed him a few chapters of one of my books and got some excellent feedback. The best thing about the site, though, is that it's packed with information that applies to any type of writing. You'll find priceless advice on queries, story synopses, coming up with titles, and avoiding the pitfalls of first-time writers. A truly great resource. If you have a finished novel...and ONLY if you have a finished novel...AND you've revised it...AND you've had it critiqued...THEN it's time to find an agent. Agency Query includes a database that allows you to search for representation by genre. So, if you're a science fiction writer, you can find agents who rep that genre. Combine the agent information with some Google sleuthing, and you should be able to assemble a good query letter.

Midwest Writers Workshop: If you live in Indiana and you like to write, there's no excuse for skipping the Midwest Writers Workshop. The event includes authors, agents, publishers, and other would-be authors hoping to perfect their craft. You can get a manuscript makeover, attend an intensive session, and much, much more. A truly invaluable experience.

Marcus Sakey: Mr. Sakey is a crime fiction writer. I once encountered him in the restroom at the Midwest Writers Workshop and tried not to turn it into an awkward moment. Anyway, he has some tremendously helpful advice on his website.

What about you? What are your favorite writing sites?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Writing Distractions

All writers have their's why they write. Somewhere, something deep down compels them to share the uncharted, dark recesses of their minds with others. Their thoughts on life, morality, politics, religion, and other concepts come to life through their characterizations, plots, and themes.

As far as quirks go, I have plenty of them. I wrote over the weekend about how my writing process is like Reggie Miller. I would certainly think that someone who compares his or her writing process to a former NBA superstar definitely has quirks.

Perhaps one of the hardest things for writers to overcome is distractions. They come at you from everywhere--YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, TV, sports, outside sounds and noises. Eliminating these distractions can be a challenge.

Some writers like to write to music; I thrive on complete and utter silence. For the most part, I can't stand to have any background noise when I'm working on a story. If I'm working on a short story or novel, I need silence. I need to be alone.

Like all great rules, there are some exceptions. For example, as I'm writing this, my wife is watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the other room. That show is Kryptonite for my writing process. It's not a bad show--Buffy has legions upon legions of devoted fans--but I don't watch it. It's not Kryptonite because I'm so enamored with the show that I can't tear my eyes away from it; it's Kryptonite because it is a distraction. And it doesn't have to be Buffy on the TV in the other can be any other TV program.

The "silence" rule applies to my creative writing. When I'm writing a blog post like I am right now, I can work with the sound distraction in the background. For some reason, the part of my brain that conjures characters and stories requires silence to be at its most fertile. No matter how hard I try, I can't block out the noise when I'm revising a story or writing it.

When I do try to block out the sound, I'll throw on some earphones and listen to music. However, the music can't have any lyrics. My best defense against outside distractions is symphonic/orchestral music, and even then, it's only partially effective.

I am at my most productive when I'm alone, which means I write a lot when I come home from work (I work second shift and get home around 11:30 every night). My wife also works on the weekends and that's another productive time for me (especially once college and pro football are over).

What about you? Do you have any writing quirks/distractions that interfere with your best work? How do you conquer them?

Monday, January 10, 2011

First draft complete!

I woke up early enough this morning to finish the first draft of a short story that's been percolating in my mind for a little while.

It's called "To the Infinity Room" and tells the story of Melvin Garth, a man obsessed with collecting trophies and trinkets from infinite realities of the multi-verse. Along with his "sweet but somewhat dim-witted" assistant Nathaniel, Melvin spends most of his days polishing, dusting, and alphabetizing his growing collection of historical pieces, alternate-reality sports memorabilia, and antiques.

Of course, young Nathaniel decides to try his hand at traveling with a device called "The Infinity Room," and Melvin rushes to retrieve a precious piece of his collection that he fears is lost forever in the infinite cosmos.

As with many of my works, it has a few pop culture references. I'm very pleased with how the first draft came out. Now I'll have to get out the trusty editing pen and start slashing/adding/refining!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On outlines and ideas

I'm especially productive today, despite the Colts game. This is my fourth significant blog update of the day (although by the time this is actually finished and posted, it will probably be Sunday and not Saturday). My previous posts have ranged from why my writing process is like Reggie Miller, ideas for covers for a couple of books I'm working on that will never see the light of day, and my thoughts on the Colts in the playoffs (turns out the second list is more on-target, unfortunately).

I've tweeted a little too much today and I also spent some time sending out query letters to literary agents. I really intended to do some creative writing today, but I also felt the urge to do some querying. Since it's something I don't particularly enjoy, I thought I'd better do it while I felt like it. Writing a query letter is basically office work. You pick your agent, tailor your letter to them, quadruple-check their submission guidelines, and allow your mouse to hover over the "send" button for a full minute before you actually click it. I think I sent out four of them today.

So that's my day so far. It had been a good day, until the Colts' special teams collapsed. There's nothing worse than losing a game you should've won.


Anyway, the purpose of this blog post...and yes, I realize I'm burying the lead to share my thoughts on how I organize my writing. As I mentioned earlier today, my writing process can be sporadic. The organization of my writing, however, often works differently. A story idea starts in my head, either inspired by something I've read or seen. Sometimes, I see a call for submissions to an open anthology series and think, "Hey, I can come up with something for that!"

The next step is to bring out a spiral-bound notebook. Typing is great and I can brainstorm ideas with the best of them while behind the keyboard, but there's something magical about putting a pen to paper. A blank page on a computer screen seems daunting, cold, and antiseptic; the cursor a constant, flashing reminder that you must do something right now. The cursor is flickering in constant, undead motion...a metronome for literary input.

Then there's the notebook page. Its white pages are unassuming pools of endless possibilities, its blue, college-rule lines practically smile at you as you bring a ballpoint pen into place. Instead of the perfectly straight, identical letters that you type on the screen, your handwriting reflects your personality in misshapen letters that provide a glimpse into your writing soul. Maybe your writing has a slant, maybe you print, maybe you write in all caps. You put hearts above your "i's," you cross your "t's" with graceful, wavy lines. Your "l's" are fat, your cursive "s's" have a crisp point at their apex.

Everything seems wide open on notebook paper.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a superhero anthology. You see, I like superheroes. I'm not an avid comic book reader, but I'm very fond of comic book movies and cartoons. So I had the idea that I would put together a series of unrelated superhero stories, just for the fun of it. After the idea came into my head, I grabbed my trusty notebook, lay in bed, and quickly churned out 20 different ideas for stories. Of those 20 ideas, ten of them have been turned into short stories.

One of these ideas spawned a story simply titled "The Journalist."

Here's the original note (I would scan the notebook page, but I'm lazy and will transcribe instead):

Journalist follows hero and tries to deduce secret identity -- unique style, research and backstory -- can't be done from scratch

Honestly, there's not really much there other than a concept. The story would be about a newspaper or TV reporter who is obsessed with finding out the secret identity of a superhero. The note on "unique style" probably isn't really that unique. It simply meant at the time that I wanted to use a framing/flashback structure to tell the story.

"Can't be done from scratch" means that sitting down in front of the keyboard and pounding the story out simply wouldn't work in this case. I wanted the story to have an authentic feel; I wanted the journalist in the story to follow a trail of evidence over a period of several months as he tried to piece together the secret identity of a superhero. He would have to go through records, conduct interviews, connect the dots, and maybe even follow a money trail. To get all the pieces to fit together, I had to know what those pieces were in advance.

So, while I sometimes can just sit in front of the keyboard and let a story flow through me once I write down a story idea, in this case I needed an outline. I needed to know what happened, when it happened, and in what order it happened. Looking at it now, the outline for the story isn't that long, just two handwritten pages with notes about the story structure and the key events that the journalist finds to build his case.

The story begins in a bar, where the reporter, Freddy, confronts rich, powerful socialite Meg MacGuire, who is more or less a female riff on Tony Stark. That's the frame for the story. From there, we go into flashbacks of Freddy's research and then return to the bar for interstitial sections where Freddy begins to press Meg about information he's learned about her.

It looks something like this:

BAR CONFRONTATION/Freddy presses Meg

RESEARCH PHASE/Six months before/Freddy's first hint

BAR CONFRONTATION/Freddy asks Meg why she's a superhero

RESEARCH PHASE/Five months before/Freddy's research goes nowhere

The story bounces back and forth between the evening of their confrontation (when Freddy is revealing to Meg that he knows about her secret life as a hero) and the steps leading up to that confrontation (Freddy's mounting research).

The funny thing is that the outline contains no names and few specifics about the characters, just concepts and a few beats about each character. The reporter, of course, is hard-driving, obsessive, and determined to prove himself right. The socialite/hero is dismissive, evasive, and then eventually amused by Freddy's theory. The outline also includes a concept for the story's resolution. Also, as I look back on the outline, I realize that I didn't use everything in it! Even as a more specific road map for the story, it's still just a guideline.

Some authors are obsessive outliners; they'll type out detailed, multi-page outlines with every event, scene, and story beat included. They'll have pages and pages of notes and detailed biographies about their characters. And, as the work gets longer--say, a novel instead of a short story--the notes and outlines become more and more involved. It's a great way to keep things straight when you're juggling so much information.

For my longer works, and I'm referring really to my novels, I have pages and pages of detailed notes and character bios. One of my books includes several thousand words of meta-fiction (newspaper articles set in the universe, character biographies, character journals, magazine features, etc.) that had to be exhaustively organized by date. All of that information is in my trusty notebook with calendar days and dates, birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. Another book includes a couple of alien religions, so I have notes on basic tenets and principles of those religions, how they differ, important "historic" events and how each religion views them, and even a few selected "verses" from their holy books.

Those things are in addition to the actual outline of the books and their respective plots.

Again, I like to write all of these things by hand; it just seems to flow better. If I try to do it by computer, I feel like I'm doing a research paper for college. Plus, I'd rather flip through my notebook looking for my notes than have 18 different windows open on my computer screen...although I'll tell you, a good piece of software with timeline-mapping capabilities (and I'm sure something like that exists) would come in handy sometimes.

I'll make one more point about outlines and then I'll finish up. As I mentioned while talking about my outline for the short story "The Journalist," an outline is a road map; not everything in it will make it to the finished product. That's where the flow of writing comes in. While I'm writing the story, other ideas will spring to mind; maybe some characters become unnecessary to the plot and are transformed into composites or eliminated entirely; maybe it makes more sense for another character to perform a certain action. The outline is a plan...and like all plans, it needs to be adaptable to fit the field conditions. Don't get so obsessed with sticking to your outline that your writing suffers.

Let the map start you on your journey, but don't be alarmed if you miss an exit along the way. Eventually, you'll get there.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Seeing it Both Ways

The Colts play the New York Jets today in what will either be the start of a great playoff run or the coda to an atypical Colts season. It could go either way...and here's why.

Ten Reasons the Colts Are Super Bowl Bound

1. They're peaking at the right time: The Colts were mired in a mid-season slump that saw them fall to 6-6. They had to win out to make it into the playoffs and emerged as champions of a weak division. However, the way they won their final games was impressive, keyed by a tough running game, hard-nosed defense, and sharp execution.

2. Peyton Manning is postseason tested: Manning doesn't boast the world's best playoff record. However, he's led the Colts to three AFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls. The monkey is off his back in terms of postseason football; he's won the big one. He's the most well-prepared and experienced quarterback in football. Period.

3. Offensive line cohesion: This offensive line couldn't run block or pass protect for most of the season. Even though Peyton was sacked a relatively low number of times, pressure was in his face for most of the season. In the past few weeks, however, the line has played much better. I almost called them "road graders" a few weeks ago, and then thought better of it.

4. Looks like Clark, plays like Clark: Jacob Tamme isn't Dallas Clark, okay? But go watch some of the past games this season and squint. For a brief second, you'll see Dallas Clark making the play or running downfield. Sometimes, Tamme's body language is eerily similar. He's not Dallas Clark, but he's the next best thing available for Indy right now...a speedy, nightmare match-up capable of breaking the big play.

5. They're not scared of New England: You may be able to say this about any NFL team, however you'd be wrong. The rest of the league is scared and intimidated by the Unstoppable Patriots Machine. The Colts are not. They've beaten New England at home and on the road; they've also lost to the Patriots in both situations. These teams know each other like the back of their hands...and the Colts aren't scared one bit. Manning threw three stinking interceptions against them and still almost won the freaking game. Imagine what would happen if the Colts played them and DIDN'T dig a giant hole for themselves.

6. Gary Brackett's "dirty" reputation: After getting a third fine for an illegal hit, Gary Brackett is going to be ticked off. And he's also playing just about as well as I've seen him play. That guy has been all over the field in the last few weeks...and no one is keeping him out of the backfield.

7. Youthful enthusiasm: Over the last couple of seasons, there has been this perception that the Colts are an aging starlet desperately clinging to the last burning embers of their glory days. But changes have come quickly and decisively, and a new cast of young Colts--Tamme, Jacob Lacey, Pierre Garcon, Pat Angerer--is leading the way. They're making key contributions for a team that needed a shot in the arm.

8. Rhodes rides again: Dominic Rhodes has been so good in the last few weeks, even Manning wondered aloud why the team ever got rid of him. Dom and Joe Addai were a great veteran-rookie-one-two punch in 2006. Rhodes' return in 2008 was unspectacular, but this year he's rejuvenated, bringing some much-needed toughness to the running game and the team in general.

9. Echoes of the past: The Colts are a three seed, just like they were when they won the Super Bowl. They stumbled at times during the regular season, just like they did when they won the Super Bowl. They'll have to win a road game against a run-oriented, defense-first team from the AFC North, just like they did when they won the Super Bowl.

10. Veteran presence: With guys like Manning, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Antoine Bethea, Brackett, Ryan Diem, Addai, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Rhodes on the roster, the Colts are well-stocked with smart, consistent, and talented players who've been there before. They've played on the biggest stage and won; they've played on national TV and won; they've done it on the road with defense and mistake-free football.

Ten Reasons the Colts Are Finished

1. The injury bug: Even with the league's best QB, the Colts are simply missing too many key parts. We all know about Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, but what about Clint Session, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, Jamie Silva, and Kelvin Hayden? They're not healthy on either side of the ball, and when it's crunch time, do you really trust Blair White or Justin Tryon?

2. Tall order: If the playoffs shake out as expected, the Colts will have to win road games at Pittsburgh and New England. Not only would they have to go through the conference's top two seeds, they would have to do it outdoors in weather that neutralizes their speed advantage.

3. Leaky secondary: Mediocre passers like David Garrard, Jason Campbell, and Kerry Collins lit up the Colts secondary during the last part of the season. While the D was great against the run, no one will hesitate to attack guys like Aaron Francisco, Justin Tryon, Mike Richardson, Mike Newton, and Cornelius Brown. There's a lot of pressure on these guys, especially if teams max-protect to keep Freeney and Mathis from going wild.

3a. Special concern: This is related to a couple of other points I've already made, but injuries have taken their toll on the team and a lot of players are either new or taking on expanded roles. Kickoff and punt coverage has been pretty shaky in this latter part of the season.

4. Protecting Peyton: The offensive line experienced a series of constant shakeups this season and pass protection has been spotty. Manning has been knocked around more than I've ever seen him get knocked around. It's accelerated the clock in his head, led to misreads, and resulted in poor throws and turnovers.

5. Sluggish start: Manning isn't the same quarterback in the playoffs...and this season, the Colts have had a tendency to get off to sluggish starts. That's a deadly trait to have in the playoffs, when the pressure jumps and players tighten up when things go south.

6. The Patriots are unbeatable: Sure, they lost to the Cleveland Browns, but the Pats have been winning in dominating fashion since Thanksgiving. They're playing their best football of the year at the most important time of the year. They're leading the league with a +28 in turnover ratio. Check out their domination since de-clawing the Lions:

@ Lions 45-24 W
vs Jets 45-3 W
@ Bears 36-7 W
vs Packers 31-27 W
@ Bills 34-3 W
vs Dolphins 38-7 W

7. The Jets are hungry: The Jets excited the NFL with an unexpected run to the AFC Championship Game last year, but it felt to many like they had a little too much success, too early. This is their year, with a more experienced Mark Sanchez, a great complement to Darrelle Revis in Antonio Cromartie, a rejuvenated LaDainian Tomlinson, a healthy Shonn Greene, and a great addition to the offense in Santonio Holmes.

8. They lucked into a division championship: The AFC South was supposed to be the most competitive division in football, with the Colts, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars all bludgeoning one another into oblivion. It kind of happened that way, but all teams lost games they should've won, the Titans' Vince Young finally went batty, the Texans taught a predictable course in self-destruction, and the Jaguars used a befuddling timeout by Jim Caldwell to kick their way into the division lead. While the Colts took control late in the season, the Jaguars simply weren't up to the task, and the Texans and Titans were playoff non-factors.

9. Evil Peyton: For an amazing span of three games, Manning was his own worst enemy, throwing 11 interceptions against the Patriots, Chargers, and Cowboys. Four of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns. If Evil Peyton returns for any span in the playoffs, the Colts are done.

10. Turnovers: The Colts are -4 on the season in terms of turnover ratio, a far cry from +2 last year, +9 in 2008, +18 in 2007, and +7 in 2006. Their defense can't force key turnovers like they have in past seasons, and their offense makes too many mistakes.

Cover to Cover

I learned a lot during my time at the Midwest Writers Workshop this summer. But one of the most interesting stories came from author John Gilstrap (his website here). His first book, Nathan's Run, ended up being a big seller. But his original title for the book was Nathan! with an exclamation mark. I didn't add the exclamation point for emphasis...Gilstrap revealed that he actually wanted it there. But the powers-that-be didn't think that was such a good idea and thus, the title became Nathan's Run. Probably a good idea for all. He also mentioned that the title of his current book, Hostage Zero, has practically nothing to do with the actual plot.

So, um, yeah.

And then there's Marcus Sakey (his website here), a successful author of crime fiction. Sakey talked about book covers and how authors have no control over them. You may have a great idea for a book cover, but there's about 1% chance that the publisher will come up with anything remotely resembling what you had in mind. He says it will be something completely different...and don't expect the art to have much to do with what your book is actually about.

I bet many writers will find those bits of information disillusioning. After all, you've given birth to characters and new worlds. You've created these plots and people from NOTHING, pouring all your heart and effort and soul into them. You feel that no one has ownership over these things except for you.

But do you want anyone to actually read your work? Would you like to maybe make some money off it? You can self-publish...a practice becoming more and more acceptable...but there exists a stigma that self-pubbed work is of lesser quality because there's no gatekeeper (i.e., a publishing house) involved. I could literally write 70,000 words of ampersands and percentage signs, slap a cover on it, and put it up for sale. There's no control there. So if you want your stuff to get read, your best chance to reach wide audiences is to have a publisher do your book for you.

That means getting an agent; that means signing over the rights to your work to someone else. And so that's why things like Nathan! never make it out in the marketplace.

Of course, publishing is changing greatly and mightily...and those publishing houses are losing some of the control they worked so hard to get. But if you want your books in the major bookstores (as long as they exist, of course, and that may not be as long as you think according to this article), the big publishers are the way to go.

So, goodbye clever, blood-sweat-and-tears title. Goodbye, killer-concept-for-my-cover-that-will-sell-a-million-books.

I've written before of crappy Photoshopping. It's one of my favorite blog labels for any post that involves something I've cobbled together using photo-editing software. In my wild, younger days of new authorship, I dreamed of seeing the cover I designed on bookshelves. So I produced different versions of covers for my books, most notably I, Crimsonstreak and The Franchise. Since the world isn't likely to see these covers in reality...when my books hit big, they'll have a professional artist do something masterful that relates in no way to the plot...I thought I'd share some of my concepts with you.

Let's start with I, Crimsonstreak. The book is a first-person account of a super-fast hero whose father takes over the world. How do you know it's a first-person account? Look at the title, silly! It's I, Crimsonstreak!. Get it? Get it?

Anyway, the story involves a new, evil empire called the "New World Common Wealth" and the main character's efforts to set the world right. It just so happens that Crimsonstreak's father--a reformed supervillain--has taken over most of the earth while playing his own demented game of Risk. The hero wears red, which I guess is a nod to the Flash.

I made these cover concepts three or four years ago. The first one is the first design I came up with and I'm rather fond of it. The stick figure (thank you, clip art!) represents Crimsonstreak, the red lines are the red blur you see when he runs, and the circle in the bottom-right is the earth as represented by a logo for the New World Common Wealth (with the "W" doubling as both "World" and "Wealth" in the symbol). There's kind of an eclipse thing going on with the logo, too.

The next two designs are just variations on that same concept, minus the NWCW logo. I probably like the one with the box better.

This design is a departure from the others. It drops the "I" from the title and simply makes it a lightning-infused "Crimsonstreak" that could be one or two words. The red streaks return, but the stick figure is replaced with a man running (apparently, his legs are on fire).

Another book I designed covers for is called The Franchise. It's about a company called OMNI Corporation, which is kind of Triple-A for city-scale emergencies. The book is set in the mid-60s in an alternate U.S. and follows the adventures of a nationwide chain of hero-for-hire businesses. In the story, a workplace accidents sign has a few mentions, and it's a nice little detail that I thought would make for an interesting cover. OMNI franchise buildings have yellow-brick exteriors, so that's where the yellow coloring comes from. The point of the sign is that workplace accidents are few and far between...but the "last week" is supposed to be somewhat ominous.

The original concept includes the work sign and a woman's silhouette representing the main heroine of the novel. I'm not much of an artist, so I searched for some pictures and found forms that I turned into silhouettes. Actually, each shadow is a different take on Wonder Woman (thanks, Google images). The first attempt is just okay, in my opinion.

The second one is just a variation. That's seriously a silhouette of Linda Carter in her iconic Wonder Woman pose from the TV series. I think she looks too small and am bugged by the fact her shadow covers the author's name. It's not an ego all the other versions, the shadows do not cover the author's name.

I like the third version a lot. The silhouette seems to be well-proportioned and I like the pose. I believe I used a Wonder Woman pic from the Justice League animated series for that one.

This fourth version has a couple of subtle changes. I dropped "by" from the author byline...go check out book covers and see how often "by author" appears. I think it looks better without it. The main character has a superpower: the ability to manipulate fire. I airbrushed a little flame coming from her hand...a touch I like.

The fifth version of the cover drops the main character's shadow entirely and just uses the OMNI sign. I really like this design ( was the template for the others). It's simple and makes me wonder, "What's going on here?" If I picked a favorite, it would probably be either the fourth or fifth versions.

Of course, as I wrote earlier...all of this is a moot point. If either of these books ever gets published by a major house, you can bet the covers will look absolutely nothing like the ones I've shared with you today.