Calibrating the writing process

watchmakers-lathe

A couple points I need to remind myself of when things are flying everywhere and I bog down trying to cram too much in too little space/ time.

  1. I have three modes to my writing process: Strip Mining, Assembly, and Polishing. It’s all “Writing”, but they are very different from each other and require different parts of my brain.
  2. I can’t do two simultaneously. Stop trying.
  3. Accept what mode I’m in. Embrace it even. At this point, the only deadlines I have are the ones I set. They can be extended.
  4. Remember that adage about the right word versus almost the right word? Very important, that.  Word Count can be a trap. Go for time spent instead. Why? Because WC varies by mode. Strip Mining = lots. Assembly = less. Polish = even less.
  5. That said, Busy-ness is NOT Productivity. It all comes down to finished pages.
  6. It’s OK to work on more than one project at a time. The background process still run. Focusing on something else might just let them work easier.
  7. Finish the piece to the best of my ability, kick it out the door, then move on. The Learning Curve  is just that – and the only way to learn is to do the work.
  8. It’s not what I can’t do but what I can do that counts. Life is a gift not a chore. Adjust attitude accordingly.

 

Some people have greatness thrust upon them. Few have excellence thrust upon them…. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.
John William Gardner

Opening Lines

I started a file of opening lines; a compilation of those random phrases, sentences, even paragraphs that pop up in my head like an infestation of mangy, unrelated, prairie dogs from the profusion of dank, dark holes and scurrilous burrows worming the plains of my imagination.

But instead of my prose, I present the previous five winning entries of the prestigious Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (he’s the ‘dark and stormy night’ guy)

Have a great day and feel free to leave your own ‘Opening Line’ in the comments.

 

2015

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.
Joel Phillips, West Trenton, NJ

2014

When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose. — Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA

2013

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. — Chris Wieloch, Brookfield, WI

2012 (personal fave)

As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting. — Cathy Bryant, Manchester, England

2011

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories. — Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, WI

This image


It’s the promo poster for “In the Heart of the Sea”, the film about the whaleship Essex. (The basis for “Moby Dick”.)

I was awestruck first time I saw it. It captures not merely the tenor of its movie, but – for me – the essence of good spec-fiction writing; there is a sense underneath of larger things, moving. The story is merely the bits that break the surface, the indicators of some terrible, wonderful immensity.

To continue the analogy; every story is another throw of the harpoon and the desperate prayer my aim is true.

Give blood – Work at a glass shop

Writing fiction is a full-time vocation jammed into part-time schedule. Glass work is my full-time job. Some days it strikes me how incredibly fortunate I am – blessed even – to make a living in the arts. Occasional slices, client aggravations, and heat-cracks aside, this is a good gig.

Here’s some shots of my studio.

At the back door
At the back door
Front door, left side.
Front door, left side.
Front door, right side
Front door, right side
Should have had more: patio slider unit turned into a large insulated window.
Should have had more: patio slider unit turned into a large insulated window.

Here’s a link to my Studio website: Glass Graphics Studio

Remember: It’s not a real project until you’ve given blood.

Thanks all. Enjoy your day.

Plug for ‘Story’

Of the hundreds of ‘How to Write’ books, I suspect there are very few you actually need. “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s Writing Fiction workbook, and How to write Science Fiction and Fantasy helped me tremendously. Add in Steven Pressfield’s ‘War of Art’, and Stephen King’s Memoir on Craft.

But STORY by Robert McKee is dope-slapping me in the best possible way. I haven’t highlighted and underlined a book in years. This however is so perceptive and articulate, not only am I marking it up like a middle-schooler, I’m reading portions aloud to my wife. Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Looking back over the last four years, if I’d only read this first…

By way of example, here are excerpts for all the ideological writers. (that includes Christians) who weigh their stories to the point of painful contrivance.

When your premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. In your zeal to persuade, you will stifle the voice of the other side. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay (story) will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of society.

Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life. For the proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your controlling idea, but its victory over the enormously powerful forces you array against it.
Story, Robert McKee. p 121,122

A novel is not a painting is not a symphony is not a film is not a sermon. Each discipline has its own requirements, opportunities, and boundaries. Be true to the one you’re called to. Pick this book up if you write fiction. Read it if you want to learn to write well.

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”

― Flannery O’Connor

The Grim Fall, chapter 2

*No sooner do I decide my next writing project, my work schedule fills up with serious commissions. Ah well, “The best laid plans…” Too much work is a nice problem to have, particularly for an artist.

Here’s chapter two of the Post Apocalyptic fantasy, currently titled “The Grim Fall.”

Two: Tracks

The snow stopped on the way back to Black Sands. Hunched against the cold, dragging the sledge, Addas was too busy not breaking a leg to notice the exact when. The ridge trail though the pass was treacherous at the best of times, but the storm had draped a coat of ice slick as lies over every rock and hole. Each step was a wager. Wasn’t until a huge shadow skimmed the ground, something long-tailed and jagged, that he looked up.

It was vanished in a blink, swooping behind snow-piled crags, its screech shattering the brittle air behind it. Addas threw down the ropes and abandoned the sled, floundering through drifts to the nearest ledge. He tucked himself as far back as he could, shivering against ice-ribbed granite, craning his neck, javelin ready. The bloody carcass lay in the open thirty paces away like bait, or an offering. Depending…

All manner of things roamed these mountains now. It was six kinds of stupid to stand and see what turned up. Hide and peek was the smart game, fear the key to staying alive.

Near the end, when Chalk was wheezing, hacking up bits of lung, he would yell at Addas to pack a big dose of it whenever he went outside. The world had turned a darker shade of murderous, the old orc snorted; fear would keep him breathing better than anything else.

Addas was the only scavenger past the gate today. Two leagues distant, he’d get no help in a real fight.

But he was used to that. So Addas studied the grimy vault of the sky while his teeth chattered out a hundred count.

The storm had hammered the clouds into a blanket of dirty wool stretched over the peaks as far as he could see. In the west, a pale sun oozed behind them like a wound under gauze, its sick light bruising their edges purple and yellow. The dark stone scarps of the Unakas rose like walls all around him, a north wind moaning off their peaks. Other than the creak of snowfields on the mountainsides, the uplands felt as still as a crypt.

Not that quiet was ever a sign of safety – usually the opposite – but with no second shriek, no new slice of shadow, Addas finally thrashed his way back to the sledge, warily took up the ropes and shouldered on.

***

Two hours later, he stood bone-tired and shaking in the ruins of Gruumsh’s Henge, overlooking the settlement. Down slope – five hundred paces to be exact- squatted the thick walls and mawing cave, the entrance to the Black Sands. Addas could see the second watch crowded around glowing braziers, weapons stacked, their thick armored shapes bunched like cattle. He watched them as he flexed warmth back into his hands, almost feeling the delicious burn of the coals, smelling the singed hair, the baked iron and body stink. At this hour, cooking smells would be wafting up out of the mine tunnels. Smells of home.

“Home. ” He spit out the word.

Truth was there was nowhere else to go. The thought of going down the slope, through the gate and descending into mouth of the cave chilled him. Addas almost felt safer here, in the big outside, in the freezing rubble. Almost.

At least out here he could catch his breath with no one jeering, booting, shoving him into the next filthy job. Privacy like this, moments alone were rare as eggs, and Addas snatched them whenever he could. He soaked them in, squirreled them away like the memory of sunshine against the dark.

Addas had discovered this refuge by accident years before, in the wretched, blighted weeks of the Grim Fall. The world tearing itself apart, he’d been thrust from despair and confusion straight into Chalk’s cruelty and the orc clan’s contempt. Refugees were boot-scum and a plague; more mouths to feed, strangers who took up space. Anyone not blood-bound to the clan was kicked, lashed, abused. He and the other fugitives fought dogs for scraps and a place to lie down. Only those who worked could stay. Being youngest and a half-breed at that, when Chalk wasn’t beating lessons into him, Addas emptied the shit pits, two buckets at a time.

He studied the calluses on his palms and kicked a lump of brown ice. It skittered and smashed against a stump of carved granite. Two rows of them, broken pillars, lined either side of the hilltop. Gruumsh’s Henge had been the heart of greenskin power for centuries, the orc deity’s stone colossus bellowing perpetual defiance from its sacred plateau across the circle of the world. Hordes of pilgrims would gather every year for his bloody, brutal festivals, pledging blood, strength and eternal fealty.

Part citadel, part arena, part temple… it was one of the first casualties in the war, smashed like an egg by some Elvish godling’s wrath.

The temple’s massive stones had been heaped into walls around the settlement’s entrance, but the feet were rooted too deep, too solid to break apart.
Out of sight, out of the biting wind, ankle deep in filthy slush, Addas squatted in the lee of the Boots, two gigantic mounds of marble – all that remained of Gruumsh One-Eye’s great statue. The Black Sands clan dumped their filth there now. And Addas had brought most of it up the slope two buckets at a time.

The wind bit into his skin and the shadows were lengthening on the mountains. Addas sighed, turned to pick up the ropes. Then he spotted the tracks.

They came straight up the valley, made a wide path churned by riders. Lots of riders. Whoever it was had scuffed through the icy crust down to the mud; a shit-stain on a swathe of frozen linen, arrowing right toward the main gate.

Caravan wasn’t due for another month, Addas mused. Raiders then?

He crept out of the stones’ shadow to peer down at the walls again. Cocked his head for screams and ringing steel, but the only thing drifting on the air was oily smoke off the fires. Everything was business as usual.

Not raiders. Then who?

Forewarned is forearmed, he remembered Chalk saying. Addas coiled the sledge’s ropes, set them down, then slid down the reverse slope out of sight of the walls and crouched beside the trail.

He traced a deep print with his finger. Not paws, so it wasn’t wargs. Not that there were many of the giant hyenadons left alive, but a few had survived with the orcs and goblins who fled underground. They were reserved for clan chiefs and favored warriors.

The tracks weren’t split-toe great boars either, so it wasn’t Orcs from the Craters either. Weather this time of year ruled them out anyway. No, the hard crescent imprint meant shod hooves, which meant ponies. And ponies meant Dwarves, and Dwarves meant trouble. Graspy, bearded little feckers.

Dwarves any day set the Orc Chief on edge. Large bunch of stunties pounding at the gate unannounced would make him nastier than usual. And seeing as slop runs downhill, the Chief would vent his spleen on the clan, and the clan would take it out on him.

“Shit and shit again,” Addas spat.

He almost turned around right then. Almost.

Chalk had told him about his ‘bolt hole’ the week before he died; a tiny hollow on the western cliffs. There was enough kindling and unicorn to hold him a while, providing he was sparse about it.

Addas looked up at the sky and wondered how much daylight was left. Enough to reach the cave before night? Time ran strange these days, sometimes greasy fast, other times the sun seemed nailed in place. Freezing was better than a beating any day.

But if the Chief sent anyone to round him up and they found him, not only would the beating be worse, but he’d lose a good hiding spot. And maybe get kicked out for good.

Between the sword and the cliff, ain’t you? Chalk sniggered in his head.

“Even dead, you don’t leave me be,” Addas muttered.

The wind dragged a wheezing cackle off into the crags. Resigned, Addas clambered up and shouldered the ropes.

Maybe Snat would have something up his sleeve, he thought as he started downhill.

Teaser: The Scorned Lands

Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy.

Figured I’d try this on you guys, see if you liked it.

Oh, and Happy Easter to K. Coble. – This is for her. 😉

Prologue: to Conjure Destiny

Ragnarok. Twilight of the Gods.

Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad… but when Gods purpose their own annihilation, what lunacy preludes that ruin? What malefic visions birth gibbering deicide?

Ragnarok… the end of all things.

It was an end, yes. But not final. A conclusion, not a consummation.

No one remembers how it began, only that the savagery raged for days. No realm spared as celestials expended their very essence to unleash the primal energies required to murder their kind. Continents heaved, oceans boiled, stars exploded. Time, space, day, night lost all meaning. Erstwhile allies and servants, our lives were abruptly incidental, insects in the scale of their grand self-immolation.

So while the Gods hurled doom across the three worlds – rending the Heavens, scorching the Earth, shattering the Underworld – we huddled and hid and dared not pray. Terror, woe, and havoc crashed over us like great waves of the deep. All turned to rubble and ash – an utter desecration – for when Gods make war, who can escape?

Then one day Ragnarok ended.

The Gods were dead.

We who survived blinked in horror at what remained – that we remained – and called ourselves cursed. Remnants of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, scattered across the blighted landscape, fated to still draw breath, forced to sift meaning from desolation.

Minor deities remain, few, feral and precarious, their minds overthrown by pain, loss, and dismay at the hells they helped unleash. On themselves. On us.

We shun them.

Ragnarok… The word twines from two roots, their true meaning: ‘to conjure destiny’.

The Gods abandoned us, took their capricious favor, their lofty scorn to whatever afterlife Gods go to. If there is such a place.

The only destiny that remains is what we conjure from the remains.

One: All the time in this ruined world
Year Three after the Grim Fall

Addas had smelt it before he heard it: hoofs pounding out of the bleak half-light and swirling snow. Twisted aside, just barely. Damn thing still bashed the air out of his lungs, sprawled him down the hill. Last he saw was the ass-end vanishing in the gloom.

He stumbled and gasped his way into a tall clump of scraggle, pain spiking his ribs every step, every ragged breath pluming the frigid air. The bush weren’t much. Its desiccated branches rattled in the wind like finger bones, but bad cover is always better than none.

Warmth drooled under his shirt and he knelt, risking a glance were his hand pressed his chest; blood seeped through his thick fingers. Bastard’s horn had gashed clean through the armor rings and the jerkin.

God-cursed fecker near gored me, he grimaced. Add another scar to the batch – if I live.

Addas steadied himself. Peered out.

The storm had hunkered down to stay; ugly, low and leaden. Bitter winds howled out of the north, bringing a frenzy of large flakes the color of ash that burned skin raw, and the cold that froze boiling water in the pot. It was dumping hard, swallowing the landscape, dropping the view to a stone’s throw. Only a few shaggy humps of brush and black boulders jutted out of the icy slop.

The beast was nowhere to be seen. But not gone. It was still out there, stalking him. Addas could feel its hunger.

He cocked his head, listened under the roar of the storm. Nothing.

He jerked his hand away from the wound, hissed as the chill bit exposed flesh. Ignore it, Chalk’s customary advice rang in his head. Bleeding ain’t important now – living is.

Easy for you to say, Addas muttered. You ain’t here.

Warty brute had been in the dirt a month, and Addas almost missed him. Almost.

The old tracker had taken him out every day for three years, rain, shine, blistering summer, freezing winter, taught him every trick, trap, track and snare he knew. He’d beat the piss out of Addas every day for three years too, cuffing him at the tiniest mistake, bellowing, “World’s hard now. Get that in yer skull. You needs be harder.” Those lessons had started the scar collection, everyone a jagged little clue, a reminder of what was gone and what was now.

Filthy, senile, grueling, cruel, Chalk had been his savior – if you could use the word nowadays. He’d been the only one willing to take Addas in, half breeds being bucket scum even before the Grim Fall. Most of the other refugees from those days were long dead, so there must have been something to the cunning old fecker’s brand of schooling.

Addas’ bloody hand brushed the handle of the cleaver sheathed at his side. It had been Chalks. Wish me luck, he thought. Ain’t none left, he heard him grunt. Get on with it.

“Well shit, then,” Addas said to the wind.

He gripped the shaft of his javelin. One of his good ones. Pitted and rust-scabbed, the iron head still held a wicked edge.

Squinting into the gale, Addas froze still as a stone. He counted thirty heartbeats then reared up. “Come on then,” he roared. “Here I am.”

Good’un, he heard Chalk snigger. Charging the likes of you means it’s starvin’. So control the brawl. Make the ‘ungry bugger come to you.

You can shut up now, Addas thought.

Twenty more heartbeats. Nothing.

Then, snow scrunched, slithered on his right.

Addas shifted toward the sound, the javelin suddenly twig-thin across his meaty palm. Three fingers to steady, thumb and pointer to aim, like Chalk had taught. Coiled as a spring, he sniffed the wind ever so delicate.

The air was flat, hard as iron, but a sick-sweet hint of skin-rot spiced the back of his throat. Mange on the beast’s coat.

“Oh, you want me, doncha? You royal fecker,” he murmured. Addas slow-stepped forward, half out of the bush, and planted his boots deep and firm. “Come then,” he hissed.

At those words, a dark shape heaved out of the roiling squall like an avalanche. Head down, long horn straight as a pike, it fixed to skewer him like a hunk of meat.

Heart in his mouth, storm in his ears, time sludged, stretched like tar; a whole day in a heartbeat. Suddenly everything was chiseled, separate and new; each flake of snow, the twine wrap on the shaft under his fingers, the muscles rippling on the charging wax-white mass, the snort of fog from its nostrils. That spike tip was mere feet away, but Addas had all the time in this ruined world.

He drove the javelin and pivoted in the same moment, saw the iron head sunk deep in the beast’s chest as it blew past, heard its scream of pain and frustration. Another dozen steps, the front legs folded and it dropped like a sack of rocks, furrowing the snow out into the gloom.

Addas whipped out the cleaver. Crouched. Waited.

Over the wind, he heard it thrash and grunt, raging against Addas, against the blizzard, against death. The cries grew steadily weaker, and he crept toward it, heavy broad blade raised over his shoulder.

It was kicking its life out fifty paces on. The javelin wobbled and twitched in its chest like a dowsing rod, snow darkening to a bloody mush underneath. It rolled its eyes, jerked its long head trying to stab him even as it wheezed its last.

Now that’s how ya live another day, Chalk cackled in his head.

Beast was gaunt, ribbed as a washboard, but there was still some meat to it. He’d drag it back for eats, but that horn was his. It was scored and dirty, but unbroken. Rare and valuable thing, unicorn horn. Pierce plate armor, it would.

The reek of offal churned in the wind as its bowels let go. Addas watched the creature shudder, slump and go still. A gust blew the stringy mane over one staring eye.

Addas Dashag, hunter, tracker, rover, scavenger, half-orc from the Black Sands clan put his boot on the unicorn’s chest and yanked his javelin out. He wiped it clean, inspected it for bends or cracks. Satisfied, he strapped it on his back then he hefted his cleaver and set to hacking the skull to get at the root of that lovely horn.

The Gospel according to Sci Fi


Consider the implications of the TED talk below. Or rather the ethical implications of this mind-blowing technology: techno-slaved insects/animals, designer hybrid pets, cloning, genetic engineering… If we do it with animals, it’s only a matter of time before the techniques and technology are used on people. Think it’ll never happen? We treat regular human beings with astonishing cruelty and callousness – how much more a being that is designed and grown? 50 Shades of Josef Mengele

One of my favorite books in recent years, Drew Magary’s ‘Post Mortal’, extrapolates a decidedly non-idyllic look at the near-future where age-freezing gene-therapy is developed, debated, then disseminated. Blunt, realistic, well-written, I highly recommend it to anyone, especially those wrestling with the inevitable struggle to integrate the Person and Principles of our faith with advancing technology in a global society. (Side note: I believe in the Rapture, but think it’s too often a cop-out of serious work and thought. After all, why dig deep or plan when you’re out of here at any minute, right?)

Far from being pagan or hostile, science fiction is an incredible opportunity for Christian writers. It challenges us to get a hold of Who and What we believe, then develop credible, consistent, working expressions of God’s redemption, compassion, and holiness. A cloistered, ‘Hold the Fort/Siege’ mentality won’t work. Does anyone actually remember the Alamo? Retreat and separation isn’t holiness – it’s heresy. All you’re really saying is ‘My God is small and stupid and no God at all.’

It’s a shame the TED talk cuts off. I’d love to hear the rest of the discussion.

But maybe that’s the point.