Prepping for NaNoWriMo!

OK, I admit it–I’ve been slacking off.

There are excuses, of course: My mom has been dealing with some health issues; my job has been psychotically busy. But there’s always something, right? You have to figure out how to make progress anyway.

So it’s time for me to shake off the cobwebs and focus hard on writing, and I’ve decided that NaNoWriMo is the ideal thing for that. I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for a while, but I’ve never participated; I’ve always been in the middle of some other writing project that I didn’t want to suspend. Now it’s the perfect event to get me going again.

I’m looking forward to the energy, the community, and to breaking through the inertia that’s been slowing me down!

P.S.: If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know what NaNoWriMo is but, if not, go check it out at nanowrimo.org.

Manuscript “done”

Finishing a manuscript is an exciting time. It’s a huge milestone, right?

You’ve been working on this project for months–maybe years–and finally you get to see the big stack of pages. You heft it and feel the weight. You take it to the dining table and drop it in front of your spouse or your mother and it thumps like someone just dropped a big-city copy of the Yellow Pages (if you still have one of those laying around). Suddenly everyone can see what you’ve been up to all this time, and you’re no longer the crazy guy who lives in a hole. You’ve actually accomplished something! You’re really a writer!

It’s very satisfying.

For about ten minutes.

Because new manuscripts are like new-born babies. Everyone loves to oo and ah over them, but the truth is that they’re stinky little beasts that have a lot of developing to do before they’re ready to go out in public on their own.

You (being the savvy writer that you are) have been doing more than just writing while you’ve been living in your hole. You’ve been learning. You know that giving birth is joyous and well-worth celebrating, but it’s still just the beginning of a long journey. There are lots of milestones still to come. Lots of challenges and rewards.

The picture above is the “completed” manuscript for my current project. It’s going out to beta readers today. I have my own feelings about it, but I look forward to getting the first opinions from others. That feedback will help me decide if this baby is going to boarding school or to a boot camp for troubled youths.

Why supernatural thrillers?

The awesome Rachel Aaron recently said this:

And it got me thinking about why I’m writing supernatural thrillers as opposed to any of the many other kinds (crime thrillers, medical thrillers, legal, military, cozies, etc, etc, etc). I mean, supernatural thrillers are obviously cooler, right? Right?

Well, I think they’re cooler anyway. But why?

I think it’s because different kinds of thrillers exploit different kinds of fear. It’s perfectly reasonable to fear an axe-wielding psycho, or a plague outbreak, or a terrorist with a bomb, or a corrupt senator. In all these cases you know exactly why you’re afraid, because you know exactly what these things could do to you. In some cases, like the corrupt senator or the psycho, you might even have the forbidden thrill of identifying with the bad guy… understanding how they embody that little bit of darkness that you keep properly hidden inside yourself.

Supernatural thrillers aren’t like that. The fear that they exploit is the fear of the unknown. The Things That Go Bump In The Night are out there in the dark… waiting for you. You desperately want to categorize them and give them names and understand the how and why of them, because that would give you comfort and make you feel like you have some kind of control. You could take steps to protect yourself.

But you can’t. The essential fact of the supernatural is… it’s not natural. It doesn’t obey the rules that you know and depend on to keep yourself safe.

Besides exploiting the primitive fear of the unknown, supernatural thrillers can also offer a primitive kind of joy: They can evoke a sense of wonder. So what if the Things That Go Bump In The Night aren’t real? For the time that we’re in the story we can imagine that we’re in a world where they’re as real as we are. Even if they’re scary, it’s exciting to imagine that strange and terrible things are possible.

So that’s my take on it. Supernatural thrillers are the best because fear of the unknown always trumps fear of the known, and because they help us recapture that sense of wonder.

Boo.

Basic principles of story engineering

If you google “story engineering” you’ll quickly see that I’m not the first person to think of writing a story as a kind of engineering. I imagine that this seems strange to people who think of engineering as being more about calculation than creativity.

Let me describe to you the three fundamental things that I got out of my first Computer Science class. I think you’ll see immediately how these translate to writing:

  1. Define the “big problem” you’re trying to solve.
  2. Decompose (break down) the big problem into smaller, more manageable problems. If necessary, decompose those problems, and so on until you’re left with nice little problems that you know how to solve.
  3. You will find things you don’t like about the way you broke the big problems into smaller problems, and you will find things you don’t like about the way you solved some the small problems. Revisit those things until you’re happy with them.

There.  I just saved you a semester’s worth of tuition.

In all seriousness, these simple tools are incredibly useful. If you learn how to define your problems effectively and how to break them into smaller problems then you can accomplish almost anything. The third part – iterating – is mostly a matter of being open to new solutions and having the patience to spend the time to execute them.

In writing, the “big problem” is obviously your story idea. You may know a lot about it or you may only have a general concept. It doesn’t really matter. Just jot down notes about what you know, however much or little it is. If you don’t know much, then you’ll probably end up iterating more, but so what? You’re going to iterate some regardless. If nothing else, ask yourself this question: What would have to be true about this story when it’s done in order for me to be happy with it? Maybe it needs to capture a certain tone? Express a certain idea? Leave the reader feeling a certain way?

In writing, the story is decomposed (broken down) into scenes. So… take a look at your notes about what you want to accomplish in your story and start jotting down scenes that accomplish those things. You’ll probably find that most of the things you want to accomplish are too big for a single scene, so break them up and accomplish parts of them in different scenes. Conversely, you will find that a single scene can typically do double- or triple-duty (and be more interesting) by dealing with more than one of your smaller problems at the same time.

In writing, multiple iterations are multiple drafts — or at least multiple passes through the manuscript to deal with specific things.

Keep in mind that I titled this “basic principles of story engineering,” not “everything there is to know about story engineering.” At their core, though, this is how both writing and engineering work for me.

I took the picture above in the museum under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It seems like a great example of the relationship between engineering and art.

How to choose a pen name

If you’ve read my About Ryan page then you already know that Ryan Colvert is a pen name. There are lots of reasons why authors use pen names  — sometimes it’s business, sometimes it’s personal. In my case, it’s just that my real name is fairly easy to misspell or mispronounce. It seemed better to give people a name that they can easily share.

Once you decide you want to use a pen name, how do you choose one?  What makes for a good pen name?

These are the criteria I settled on when I was choosing mine. I’d be interested to hear if you have other thoughts.

  1. The surname should start with a letter that isn’t at the very beginning or the very end of the alphabet. This may be an out-of-date guideline at this point, but the idea is that you don’t want your book to be on the top shelf (above customer’s heads) or the bottom shelf (by their feet) in the bookstore. You want it to be somewhere around eye level.
  2. The name should be short. You want it to fit on the cover of your book in large letters, so potential customers can see your name from across the room.
  3. You want a name that’s unlikely to be misspelled or mispronounced. I mentioned this as my primary reason earlier — you just want to make it easy for people to talk about you or search for your name on their favorite book-purchasing web site.
  4. Choose a name that is suitable for your genre. You probably wouldn’t want a name like “Rose Lillypetal” if your stories are full of graphic descriptions of monsters disemboweling their victims.
  5. Make sure the domain name and twitter id are available. Google the name and check Amazon as well to make sure that you won’t be confused with someone else, especially another author.

Strangely, I didn’t choose Soren Kierkegaard as my pen name. The picture above was taken in the cemetery where he’s buried when we visited Denmark.

Learning from my mistakes

My last few blog posts were the prelude to a thriller that I started and then abandoned half-way through. I had stumbled on the remains of that project and decided that it would be fun to post a bit of it.

It was fun to read that old material, but it was also valuable to look at it critically with the benefit of a little distance and experience. There are things I still like about it, but there are also things I would do differently if I were starting that project now. What’s really interesting is that now I can spot decisions that I made in that material that—at the time—I didn’t even realize I was making. I’m just more aware of certain things now then I was then.

Here are some of my thoughts:

Should that novel have had a prelude at all? Some people hate preludes, but I don’t. In this case, though, I don’t think it was needed. All this particular prelude really accomplished was to set a mood and establish a question in the reader’s mind. Those are legitimate things to do, but they could have been done in other ways with less “overhead.”

The entire prelude was told through narration. I did that to give the prelude a voice that was distinct from the main story. I think it was successful in that respect, but now I realize that it was also a risky decision. Some readers would probably be turned off by a couple of pages of solid narration. I certainly wouldn’t recommend using that approach for anything longer.

Tropes everywhere! If there were a contest for how many tropes could be jammed into a short space, I would submit this prelude. Tropes are unavoidable, but these days I like to think I put more consideration into which I use. See tvtropes.org for an entertaining and educational list of tropes.

Wordiness.

(See what I did there?) Seriously, though, the wordiness in this prelude comes from a combination of things: my natural tendency to be wordy and a lack of editing are big factors. But I think a lot of it also came from the writing process I was using at the time. I was still in the mode of obsessing about every sentence before moving on. Now, I draft by writing as fast as I can and leaving the tweaking for later.

It’s actually kind of nice to look back at old material. It makes me cringe a bit, but it also gives me a sense of progress. In its own way, that’s very motivating—it shows me that the work and practice are paying off, even if it isn’t always obvious when I’m in the middle of it.

(I took this picture in Berlin, through the window of a bus. A construction site with something beautiful in the background seems to have some parallels to this topic.)