Friday, August 31, 2012

Nursing the Muse

I have often heard writers refer to their talent or ability to write as courting the muse.  That's truer than one mine think but not exactly right.  A muse is a fickle thing if we believe mythology and one's writing ability can be equally unreliable.  But the muse is said to be the source of inspiration and has none, at least as far as I know, with the ability to string words things. If you can't do that, all the inspiration in the world isn't going to get you very far.

During my months of being burned out, it was exact the ability -- stringing words together -- that was missing and had to be relearned.  I had to remember how to play with sentences, words, phrases, metaphors, and all that good stuff to express myself.

If you can do that but don't know what to focus on, that's more a muse problem.  Perhaps, you are a new writer looking to get started, or an established writer who is dry spell.  What do you do?  Well, attracting a muse is like a wizard summoning a familiar, although the wizard will probably have better luck because the muse will often ignore any attempt at being summoning.

And you can't put out food the way you would for a mouse, or perhaps Santa, and hope something will happen.  Rather, I find the muse goes where he or she will.  Your best bet is to keep a journal and do a lot of free writing.  For those who don't know about free writing, let me explain.  It is a technique where you write for five minutes to fifteen minutes non-stop.  You don't worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. You just write.  Later you can go back and see what you've done. Sometimes you get stuck and repeat the same word half way down the page.  Other times you hit gold and you make a connection you never saw before.  That's the calling card of the muse.  That means the muse is in the area and ready to help you.

The best way to reciprocate is to keep writing.

Of course this is a little over simplified and each person will be different.  I say this because the writer in a dry spell sometimes has a much harder time regain old skills that the new writer starting out.  The reason for this is simple; the experienced writer knows how the work on a story should go when everything is working right and this person may self-censor too soon.

This is understandable but unnecessary.  Chances are good that writing for the experienced writer will not be the way he or she remembers them; they might be better or they might not.  And the reason for the difference is the writer him/herself. The important thing to remember here is that writing has takes time.  Time to draft, time to revise and revise and revise.  It takes a commitment to the writing, which is kinda like maintaining a large web site raised a few orders of magnitude. Work on the writing only stops when it goes out into the world.  Until then most writers will want to hone and craft what they are writing.

But above all, writing takes time to reflect. It is in reflection that a writer sees when he or she is going and sometimes how to get there.  Without reflection, the writer walks blindly in a darkened room without a light source hoping to find his or her way.

I say all this not to scare anyone but to information and remember all writers about the essential element that our craft requires.

So if you have a muse, nurse it, feed it, and take care of it.

If you are looking for one, good luck.  And while you are searching, keep writing.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Out Sick

I've seem to have come down with a cold in the middle of summer.  So there'll be no pearls of wisdom from me today.  My mind is muddled.  I think the best thing for me is to go back to bed so I can sleep this off.

Hopefully by the end of the week I'll be more like myself again and able to put together a blog post on something.

Until then, keep writing.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The P is for Personal

In my recent post on poetry I forgot to mention that poems need to tell a story just a novels. The way they do this is very different because often the story being told is a much smaller one and a very personal one.

Often the story of a poem is focused on a moment in time or an image that sparks a memory and a set of feelings that the speaker of the poem releases and resolves in the space of the poem. Or tone of voice and the monologue of the speaker tells the story.

And the fact that I only realized that a poem needs to tell a story came crashing down on me the other day.  I suddenly realized why some of my poems work and some do not.  The ones I'm struggling with drift and meander without telling a full story.  Oh, there are some images perhaps or an interesting observation here and there but that's not enough.

An example here will probably help. Here's a short poem that illustrates the idea.

The trees burn with color.
And while there is no smoke or smell of soot
the leaves still drop like cinders
and make the grass beneath the trees

The wind cannot squelch the flames, nor can the rain.
Instead they only fan the fire, igniting entire groves.
And once the flames die out,
a gray-brown ash descends
on the skeletal remains.

The trees now chatter in the wind speaking in code
waiting like giant hands
to catch whatever they can.

I wrote the poem when I saw some very vibrant colors on some maple trees one autumn.  The red and oranges of the leaves made the trees appear to be on fire so I decided to use that as a metaphor and extend the metaphor in the second stanza but treating the brown leaves that fall to the ground as cinders from the fire and by imagining that the wind spreads the color change -- the fire -- somehow.

But notice that the story starts with the trees on fire and concludes when the fire is out and the trees are bare. The third stanza is necessary to complete the story because without it all you have is an image of trees with bright leaves.  Big deal.  It leaves questions: what happened to the trees? And the leaves?

The poem doesn't focus on the leaves after they have lost their leaves but clearly there has been a shift in time from the second to third stanza and that passage of time help to tell the reader that fire is over and now bare trees chatter in the wind as their branches collide.

I have other examples of poems telling stories but they are long and not easily provided for a blog post, so I encourage any poets out there to go read the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Shakespeare, and others and see how the masters tell stories with their poems.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Novel Writing

So lets say you've got this idea for a novel. What are the next steps? Well, the first thing to consider is: do you have enough writing experience to actually complete the project? I ask this because even Steven King tells the story of how he put on idea away until he felt he was ready to tackle it. So if you answer my question no, then pull the idea aside and work on other things until you are ready.

But lets say you answer yes. Then you've got a few tasks ahead of you before you start writing. For example, you'll need to know your main characters very well. What makes them unique? What's their background? Their motivation in your story? Who do they fit into the world? Is their action consistent with a person like the one you describe? Do they like each other? If not, why not? If yes, why?

You get the idea.  You'll also need the background story so you can relate these points as needed. If you set the story in the modern world, you can probably start writing at this point but watch out for thing you don't know about. For example, if you're main character is a spy for the CIA, you'll need to do some research on the CIA so you can get certain details right. Of course, you'll probably need to make up a few things too because much of that information is classified.

If you set the story in a historic period, you will definitely need to research that period in time. On the other hand, if the story is speculative fiction, you'll need to create the world (or worlds for a space-faring yarn) yourself. This can be as much or more work as writing the novel.  So if you answered no to my opening question, a good next step is to fill in the world information you need.

This can include making maps (of cities, regions, the world), designing coats of arms and guild badges, creating new languages, describing and understand different races, like elves and dwarves or vulcans and klingons. You will also want to give through to the use of magic (for the fantasy novel) and the level of science and technology (for the sci-fi book).  The absence or presence of psionic abilities or superhuman traits is another thing to consider.

But above all, if you are writing in a specific genre -- you must know it. What conventions are acceptable and what are not. Is the point to confound the reader with a mind-twisting mystery, or make their pulse race with non-stop action?  Does the reader expect to be lost in an all-consuming romance or thrilling to swashbuckling feats of your character?

As you can see there is much to do and to know. Be sure you put in the effort into all these things because if you don't, your story will suffer and feel flat.  Oh, and don't expect to include any of this in your story.  This information is for you so you can make your fiction seem real. Snatches of this information might bubble up into your story, but most of it will never see the light of day.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Practice, Practice, Practice

According to medical research, people who suffer strokes can relearn skills they lose by practicing them to re-establish connections in the brains for those skills.  There's a very good series on PBS about how elastic the brain is that goes into this in a great deal of detail. This explains how I was able to recover my writing skills after I suffered from burn out.

Burning out is like a very localized stroke in the sense that old skills are lost. But by practicing my craft I was able to regain my writing skills to the point where, now, I have a novel in the process of being published.

What that means for new writers is: you must practice your skills regularly.  Keep a journal if you have to.  And don't expect your skills to materialize overnight.  It takes months or years usually depending on how sharp your mind is, how well read you are, and how much you practice your writing skills.

For me, I had to recover my general writing skills so I could string words together before I could focus on a specific type of writing.  I found reading helped a lot, especially clearly written non-fiction, just so I could see the proper way to put words together again.

Once those skills were in place, it took years to hone my creative writing skills because I did not practice them often -- life has a way of intruding -- and because I was not thinking clearly about my material.

Several years and several rejections later, when I really focused on this work, I made several major changes in characters, plot, and the very way I told the story, all of which yielded the result I wanted.

Of course by then I had all made several life changes so I could write more regularly.  I increased my reading too.  I even did a little reading about writing creatively just to make sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

So practice, practice, practice.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Road Ahead

I haven't written much about what's going on with me these days so I thought it was time for an update.

Book 1, Aure the Topaz, is in the second round of editing with the publisher.  I've got the feeling this will be a more extensive edit.  But I could be wrong. I took many of the edits from the first round.

Once the edits are complete, the publisher will turn its attention to the book cover, the book trailer, and other matters of this type.  They have already reviewed by web site.  They gave the content two thumbs up, but the design they said was lacking.  I disagreed but knowing I had still some issues with the site, I did a little rearranging.  The result -- now live -- is a site that addressed all issues.

They currently are looking at my media kit.  It is only partial complete.  There were items that they said I should include, like the demographics, that I had to guess at.

Meanwhile, Book 2, Vorn the Onyx, is in revision.  I'm about half way done with it.  The publisher like the beginning of the book so I'm hoping they will pick it up once it is ready.  I don't know when that will be but my target date is by the end of the year. It might be ready soon that that. Hard to say.

I continue to write poetry as the mood hits.  I plan to collect it all into a single volume but I probably won't have enough poems for some years yet.

I've spent much of the summer writing short stories. I want to have more that Aure ready and available for sale for the book launch. This will show people there is more in this well than one novel.  That's important because one-hit-wonders are common. People who can last and go the distance with multiple books are less common.

At present I'm planning two collections of stories using characters from my fantasy series.  Stories for the first collection are already on Smashwords and now available in print from  Stories for the second collection will trickle out over the fall.

Looking out a little further, I begin writing Book 4 as soon as Book 2 goes to the publisher.  But in all honesty, with so much going on now, it is hard to think that far ahead because by then the promotion of Book 1 will be taking up some of my time too -- I just don't know what form that will take yet.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thinking in Novels

A friend from Facebook admitted the other day that she thinks in novels.  By that I think she meant that story ideas come with big, involved plots that require novels to resolve.  I have the same affliction.  Much of my fantasy world is involved with very involved plots and would take many novels to describe and resolve.  Hell, the Aglaril Cycle, my current series has a very simple premise but to do it justice, I'm estimating eight novels: one to find each gem and then one to wrap it up.

But not all story ideas require novels, obviously and I have been trying to think in short stories. That's a lot harder. A good short story has to be self-contained. If it is not, it has a novel-feel to it. I have written stories that I thought were complete but the readers didn't think so. They wanted more, expected more. And I have written stories that are complete. The trick is to determine if all the questions raised by the story are answered.

For example, a baby is found in a ruined tower.  How did the baby get there? Once that question is answered, the story is complete.

Example 2: A brave -- or foolish -- warrior seeks out the oldest dragon in the world for battle. What happens? Does he win because the dragon is so old? Or has he underestimated the beast's power?

Example 3: A struggling writer discovers a magic pen. Does it help him achieve his dreams of success or force him to write things he would never consider putting his name to otherwise?

How you answer these questions will determine the story you get.  For example, my answer to the first question was the baby is the regression form of the alchemist that had lived in the tower. Facing death, she experimented with a potion that would place her in stasis and heal her wounds. But the healing also aged her in reverse so when she is finally found, she is a baby. To make the story more interest I also decided that the potion had no effect on her mental abilities. So she is an adult woman trapped in the body of a baby and she's not a nice person.

You can see how I embellish the idea a little. Then I let it take its course and write down the results, which in this case was a 4500 word story entitled Baby Muran.

I did similar things with the other examples.

The more questions a story has, the longer it is.  Likewise, if you start adding questions about the characters you end up with a novel. Short stories don't have time or space for character-specific questions.

So regardless of what you are writing, try to determine the questions you need to answer and make sure you answer them because satisfying the reader is job 1 when writing fiction.

Keep writing everyone.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sales and Promotion

I asked my publisher the level of sales they were expecting for my book.  I did this because I had no idea what they consider a successful book.  Sales are, after all, relative.  Major publishing houses want thousands of copies sold in a month.  My publisher is happy with over 100 copies; 300 copies or more would make them happier still but they don't expect much more than that.

That gives me a range to shoot for which I didn't have before.  My focus this week is identifying different methods of promoting my book to yield the 100 to 300 copies a month they want.

Some methods are obvious: they will be interviews and book signings to be sure.  Other methods are less so.  Giveaways and contests are popular but I need to ask if I need to fund the prizes or if the publisher will.  Ideally the publisher would be give away some free copies of the book to generate interest.

I've got a media kit in the works; another way to promote the book is to get this information in the hands of people who review books routinely.  Their word of mouth is critical.  I could also have the book reviewed, but my publisher is not keen on that and even though they explained their reasoning I still don't see why I can't hire a review service.

Blog tours are another option and press releases and a book trailer are a must.  I also have business cards for the book (yes, for the book) and I'll have postcard-size takeaways with the back cover text on the reverse that I can give people in large numbers or leave behind somewhere.

I expect I'll be using social media too.  Tweets and forum posts about different things are likely in my future and will an adjustment to my email signature. I've even revised the start of my bio along the lines suggested by another writer who is focusing on book promotion for writers.

I can only hope that all these things -- or at least some of these things -- make a difference. I'll be talking with my publisher more on this subject I'm sure because the road here is murky and unclear. I'll have to experiment to see what works and what doesn't.

In the meantime, I need to keep working on Book 2.  Nothing kills a book faster than being written by a one-hit wonder.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What No One Can Teach You

So you want to be a writer?  Or is it that you are writing but not getting anywhere?  You read books, take classes, attend writer groups, read blogs about writing, and still something is missing.  What can I say?  That happens.  Writing is a skill and some people are better at it than others.  I play the guitar, but I'll never perform for anyone; I'm not good enough and I know it.

What can you do?  Write more.  You'd be surprised how much writing you need to do before your skills develop to the point where they are good. You need to read a lot too and notice how sentences are put together. How does the writer get your interest and hold it. How are characters sketched and developed.

But even after all that, there are some things you are going to have to learn on your own.  For example, you need to know what tone a story should have.  I can't teach you that.  And you need a voice all your own.  I can't teach that either.  These come from experimentation and experience I'm afraid.

Use of repetition is another one I can't teach. Oh, I can tell you not to be repetitive and you'll be able to do that.  But sometimes you need to break the rules.  I can't tell you when or where to do that; you have to feel it -- yes, this is the writer as Jedi school of learning, thank you -- and know that you've got a good place to use it.

You also need to develop an internal sense of when your story is good enough.  Most writers don't have this to start.  I certainly didn't.  But you need this so that you know when to send it out for others to look at. If you send it out too soon you'll get rejected and discouraged.  But if you send it out when you know it is ready, then each rejection you get can be weathered and not throw you off course.

I had this problem. Publishers want to see your work but not until it is ready.  If you've got flat characters, it is not ready and you need to fix that first.  Of course, when you think the story is ready but the publisher doesn't, you wonder why the universe is conspiring against you.  The simple truth is: you need to revise your story.

Of course once it all comes together, writing a good story is great.

So keep at it.  Writing takes time and patience and a clear head. Know what you want to say, know your characters, and know the world your characters are in.  And try writing some non-fiction first to get all the grammar, punctuation, spelling, and mechanical issues out of your writing.  When you've got that down, you'll be ready to starting fiction.