A Sense of Childish Wonder

Some of my all time favorite books are the ones I read in late Elementary and Middle School.  There was this sense of genuine ridiculousness and wild imagination that was so natural at the time.

A book about a kid with a magical cupboard that brings his figurines to life?  Or the castle in the attic?  What about the kids who realize their teacher is an alien?  Or the one where the back of the wardrobe is a doorway into another world?  Or the horror stories where a kid gets turned into a bee and has to figure out how to get back?  Calvin and Hobbes?

Fantastic!

That’s what’s so wonderful about those early stories, that anything, anything was possible.  The more ridiculous the better.  Some were truly ridiculous but at the same time they were so genuine.  They were somehow real and yet unpredictable.  There were no rules except to inspire wonder.

When I decided to start writing stories I knew at least some of them would be for my daughter and I really wanted to emulate the feelings that I got from books at her age.  However, I also wanted to bring some of that into the other stories I was doing too, which isn’t easy.

It’s more difficult with adults because stories need to have enough grounding, adults have a lot more established beliefs and opinions.  There can be an element of wonder, of the unexpected, but too much and they don’t like it.  We know what we like and we tend to pick out books that fit within comfortable niche.  They don’t have to follow all the stereotypes but neither can they stray too far.

Family and friends that I’ve shown my work to, people that know me, have been very pleased and accepting but I have to say that I get some strange looks from everyone else when I describe my stories.  Sometimes, I’m not sure how to describe them or even what genre they are.

Geeks, Greens and Guns… A normally stoic enforcer for the mob in Las Vegas gets sucked into a light hearted UFO story outside Area 51.  It’s kind of funny, nobody dies and there’s a happy ended.  I suppose it counts as Sci-Fi?

The Apocalypse Gazette: After an epic apocalypse a guy is all alone in his small town, goes crazy with nerves and loneliness, and decides to write a newspaper documenting it all.  I did a whole post before about how I’m not sure what genre this story should be.  It’s funny, it’s light hearted, it’s weird and it’s got a talking cat.  Apocalyptic humor?

Still Life, with Zombie:  I can’t remember if I’ve written about this one here, it’s a story about a retired doctor living in a remote area and the zombie apocalypse.  It’s dark humor, a little scary, but has what I consider the most heart warming ending of all my stories.  It needs a lot of work, I’ve been editing it for a while, but where does it fit in with readers?  It’s nowhere near the usual zombie story, very little action.  Horror, I suppose?  But that doesn’t really seem to fit.

front draft 2

I’ve written some stories for my kid that she’s really enjoyed and I’ve written some others that are more “normal”, but that ones that really stick with me are the weird ones.  While I might struggle with them, or even what to call them, I’m imminently pleased with how they’ve been turning out.  They represent some of that childish wonder but in unexpected places.  They’re fun to write and they’re the kinds of stories that I want to read, they don’t fit into neat categories.  They open the doors to all the impossible possibilities.

When to leave a review

I’ve got a question for all the authors out there, is it alright to leave a less than stellar review?  I’ll explain.

Over the last year I’ve met and followed a lot of different authors on WordPress.  I try to be a good part of the network by picking up their books and other recommendations, supporting indie authors.  Some of these books are fantastic and I make sure to leave a good reviews, some… aren’t.

Since I started writing seriously I found that I’ve gotten a lot more critical over my own writing and what I read.  I’ve also gotten a lot better at identifying problems, in my own writing and others’.

There have been several times that I’ve seen glowing reviews for a new indie book, on multiple sites, then picked it up myself and had a hard time even finishing it.  That’s not to say I’m an editorial genius, I’m not, some of those needed a lot of work but others were just not to my taste.

When I do finish one of those books I face a dilemma, do I leave a three-star (or less) review or do I just stay silent?  It might be better for them even if I left something less than positive with the way Amazon does their rankings, I don’t know.  And what if I know the writer (on WP, anyway)?  Should I email the writer if I had problems with the story, or just say nothing?  If it was me I’d want to know, but some people are protective over their baby and might not like unasked for criticism, even if it’s intended as constructive.

The Cost of Writing a Book

Like many writers, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops though maybe not for the atmosphere.  I’ve been a member of a couple writing groups for the last year or so, they help keep things interesting, and, of course, they meet at coffee shops.

Whenever I go to these groups I buy something.  It doesn’t seem right to sit down, use their WiFi for a couple hours and not spend some money.  Usually it’s just two or three bucks for an iced tea but once a week or so I’ll add a sandwich or snack.  Plus a tip, of course.

Today, after paying for my iced tea and a veggie wrap, as I tried to find an unoccupied table to write at, I wondered how much money I’ve spent at these various shops.

This turned out to be a far scarier topic than I thought it would.  I did the math.

It takes me about two months to finish a very rough first draft, with two group meetings a week.

Two hours of writing costs me about $5 on average.  In two months I’ll have visited 8 times, spending a minimum of $40 just to get through a first draft.

That adds up fast, $240 a year for writing in coffee shops.  Now, it’s not just writing, there’s networking and commiserating with other writers, but still.  As Indies we’re always hearing about the costs for good covers, editing, marketing, etc.  But how many people talk about the cost of coffee (or iced tea)?  Maybe that should get figured into more Indie budgets.  I mean, $240 could pay for a lot of marketing.

But then, of course, if I didn’t spend so much time at coffee shops I would never get anything written.  I guess it just comes with the territory, the cost of writing a book.  😉

9/11

I wasn’t planning on writing anything about the anniversary of 9/11 but all the other memories being posted today dragged mine back up to the surface.

In September, 2001, I was on break from college, staying with my parents on the far west of the country.  I was 19 and still trying to decide if I was going to sign up for a Sophomore year or try my luck with something else.

As we were four hours behind everyone else, I got a phone call at an ungodly hour from one of my closest friends.  We’d known each other for years and been roommates in the dorms the previous two semesters.  He had family back east that had given him a similar call a few minutes earlier.

I fumbled at the phone until it stopped beeping and put it to my ear.

“Dude, turn on your TV.”

“What?”

“Just do it, turn on the TV.”

From the tone of his voice I knew it was something serious, but just because it was a big deal to him didn’t necessarily mean it would be to me.  And it was 5 o’clock in the morning, what could be so important?  With much cajoling he convinced me to get up and go to the living room.

I switched it on and the screen filled with a building pouring out black smoke.

Satisfied that I was paying attention he got off the phone to make more calls.

I still didn’t know what was going on, nobody did at that point.  A plane had hit one of the skyscrapers half a world away.

My dad left for work, my mom came and sat on the couch with me.

I honestly don’t remember whether we saw the second plane hit in real time or whether it was one of the thousands of replays that day, it all blurs together, but it soon became apparent that this was no accident.

We watched the towers hit and fall, over and over again for hours as all the talking heads tried to make sense of it.  Terrorism.  That was the word of the day, but no one really knew anything.

I had work that day so I had to leave.  At the time I was a waiter at a diner downtown.  A couple blocks away was one of the main roads and it dead-ended into the largest Army base in the state.  Before even arriving at work I could see the traffic backed up for miles.  The terror threat had jumped the less alarming colors and the security measures had increased dramatically.  Cars were being searched, there were dogs everywhere, men with guns watching everyone very, very carefully, traffic inched forward.

My boss, who was an all around horrible person, was just as shook up by the situation as I was and that prompted her to somehow make one of the nicest decisions I’d seen so far.  We packed up boxes of to-go cups full of coffee and walked to the traffic jam, handing them out to all the soldiers stuck in their cars.

It was a small gesture but we couldn’t think of anything else to do.

The rest of that day was spent in a daze of disbelief.

And fear.  Terrible, creeping, undeniable fear.

For those who were too young to understand, or born after 9/11, this is all history.  It’s easy for them to see it as a singular blip in time, one horrible action that hasn’t been repeated.  But at the time we didn’t know what was coming, we didn’t know if this was a first strike in a coordinated attack.  We didn’t know if this was just the beginning of something even worse.  Would Chicago be next?  Would it be trains, or bombs, or gunmen at the malls?  We didn’t know, and that was terrifying.

I was 19, not currently enrolled in college, what if the government started the draft again?

Of course, all our hearts went out for those that lost their lives, and all our support went out to the men and women responding to the situation… but underneath all of that was this uncertainty that ate away at us.  We had all been blissfully unaware of danger, children really, in a stable life, a safe place, far from the horrors we heard about on the news in countries we couldn’t find on a map, and that innocent naivete was wiped out in a single morning.

That was the point.  That’s the goal of terrorism, to terrorize, and it worked.

A year later I joined the Navy.  Originally I’d signed up for the Marines but the Navy process was months faster at the time.  How much of that decision, and all the others that followed, how much of my life was changed by that day I’ll never know.

But I do know I’ll never forget it.

The importance of Beta Readers

Most of us writers probably have a similar response to finishing a story.  We gaze at our manuscript with starry eyes and proclaim it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, conveniently forgetting how we said the same thing after the last finished manuscript.  To be fair, it probably is at least a little better, but from how we (I) feel you’d think we skipped fifty developmental steps and just wrote the GREATEST AMERICAN NOVEL EVER.

I did this after finishing The Apocalypse Gazette.  Greatest.  American.  Novel.  Ever.

It’s not, I know, but it feels like it is.

Then come those pesky Beta Readers, poking holes in our ego.

It’s not pleasant but it’s important.

One of my favorite things about The Apocalypse Gazette is that it’s vague about what’s real in the story and what’s just in the main character’s head.  He’s losing his marbles and I like the fact that it’s not obvious how much of the story is actually happening vs. what he thinks is happening.  To me, that opens up this whole playful world that takes ‘post-apocalyptic’ into ‘anything goes’.

I passed the story on to a trusted friend for her opinions.  She’s read most of my stuff and is quick to point out any issues she has.

The first thing she said?  “I don’t understand what’s going on with Wally when XYZ happens…”

My ego wanted to jump in and say “That’s the point, isn’t it clever?”

But that wasn’t how it worked for her, she found the vagueness distracting and confusing.

As much as it pained me to admit, if she found it distracting and confusing, a large percentage of the readers would too.  And that’s not what I want.

So, back to the writing board to rework all those sections, trying to balance the parts I like with just enough clarity that I don’t lose the audience.  Sigh.  But that’s why Beta Readers are so important, the good ones will point out the good and the bad, hopefully leading to a better book.

First person, present tense

Today I spent a couple hours going through pages on Ellen Brock’s blog, Workshop pages.  Writers each submitted a piece for critiques, separated by genre.  Originally, I planned on just peeking at one or two but quickly got sucked into the whole thing.  I ended up reading all of them and commenting on most with (hopefully) helpful feedback.

If you have some time I would highly encourage you to go check out the submissions.  It’s always fun to see what other people are doing and getting feedback is one of the most important steps for writers.  There’s some good stuff over there.

A couple of the pieces got me thinking about a subject that’s been rolling around in my head for a while.  Recently, I’ve seen a lot of writing done in the first person POV using present tense.

Here’s some examples for those that aren’t familiar with the terms:

First person, present tense: I walk into the bar and look around.

First person, past tense: I walked into the bar and looked around.

Third person, past tense: He walked into the bar and looked around.

There are plenty of other options but those three are the most common I see so I’m going to stick with those for this post.

Each option has it’s pros and cons.  I’ve seen it argued that first person, present tense (FPPT for simplicity) is more immediate and gripping than the others.  And in some cases it probably is.  The Hunger Games is a good example, I really enjoyed those books.

However, in my opinion, FPPT seems to have more risk than other variations.  It’s easy to use it poorly, if that makes sense.  And when it isn’t done really well it can be choppy and awkward, like a character narrating their own life.  Who does that?

‘I walk into a bar and look around.  I don’t see anyone I recognize.  There’s a faint smell of stale beer and urine.  I find a seat at the counter and motion to the bar tender.’

It’s almost robotic at times.

I mean, it’s okay, but does it work as well as other options?  Most recent FPPT stories I’ve read might have been better as third person, past tense.  Being inside a character’s head can give you a really in depth perspective but it can also be really limiting.  To describe people, scenes, and details well enough to move the story, and keeping that authentic voice, is not as easy as it seems.  Whereas, taking a step back, third person, past tense gives the writer more wiggle room, with the con of being further removed from the specific character.

‘Eric walked into the bar and looked around.  The big red-head didn’t see anyone he recognized.  There was a faint smell of stale beer and urine.  He found a seat at the counter and motioned to the bar tender.’

Again, this is all personal opinion, but I’m a big fan of third person, past tense.  To me, it’s more ‘invisible’ to the reader and flows better.  I’m sure other people think the opposite, otherwise I wouldn’t be seeing it so often.  And maybe for some projects one makes more sense than the other, but either way it’s something that should be a conscious decision by the writer on a piece to piece basis.

What’s in a genre?

I’ve been doing a lot of rewrites and adding sections to The Apocalypse Gazette.  While it was first started as kind of a silly, fluff story it’s quickly become one of my favorites.  It’s still silly but it’s also got a fun voice and personality.

However, there are a couple problems that have been bugging me about what to do with it.  I mean, it would be a really fun project to self publish, and that’s the goal, but there are some… logistical issues that are tripping me up the more I think about it.

First, there isn’t really a plot.  It’s basically a story about a guy all by himself in a town after the apocalypse going crazy.  He has a few minor problems that he has to figure out, the biggest being boredom, but there’s no bad guys, there’s no epic adventure.  I mean, it’s all playing off the fact that he’s losing it, a lot of the things that happen aren’t easily distinguishable between reality and his fantasies.  Personally, I’m fine with all that because it’s still a really fun story, I don’t feel like anything is missing, but how does one sell a story about a guy slowly going crazy and everything getting weirder and weirder?

Second, and this is arguably the bigger issue, what genre does The Apocalypse Gazette fall into?  Ok, fiction, obviously, but beyond that I’m not too sure.  Humor is probably the closest fit but at the same time that’s a broad category.  It’s not romance, fantasy, mystery, horror, science fiction, inspirational, or thriller.  It’s… dystopian… apocalyptic… humor?

Well, I suppose if Dystopian-Apocalyptic-Humor is a category on any of the main sites at least my story wouldn’t have much competition.

And, at least I have some time before I have to sort all that out, there’s still plenty of work to be done before I get to publishing.

If any of you have suggestions I would really like to hear them.

Writing Humor

Some stories are easier to write than others, the most difficult I’ve found so far is humor.  I love a funny story but I’m also picky, probably like most readers.  Humor is such a subjective thing.

The last few stories I’ve written for NaNo were light-hearted.  I chose those stories very specifically because they wouldn’t be too heavy, they’d be fast and fairly easy to keep up the word count.

Geeks, Greens, and Guns was more situational humor, crazy stuff happening to fairly normal people.  It’s humorous without really being funny, if that makes any sense.  There wasn’t pressure to make jokes or have good one-liners, it was more about coming up with weird situations to stick the characters into.

The Apocalypse Gazette was almost the opposite, less crazy situational stuff and more funny stuff.  That wasn’t intentional, per se, it was just how the story turned out.  The main character goes through this boredom inspired insanity that leads to him writing the gazette.  In essence, he’s finding ways to amuse himself and humor played a large role.  Not a lot actually happens in the story, the humor has to carry a lot of the burden, which had me nervous at times.  If the reader doesn’t get the jokes they’re going to put down the story pretty fast.

Well, I can’t speak for other readers, but as I was perusing some of the chapters of The Apocalypse Gazette this evening I found myself chuckling over jokes that I’d forgotten.  I’m taking that as a positive sign.  Whether or not anybody else is amused, well, at least I’ve amused myself.  Life imitating art.

NaNo!

Camp-Winner-2015-Web-BannerWoohoo!  It took a big push the last week but I managed to make the 50K count for the month.  Whew.  Awesome.  Now I just need to finish the draft, probably still need at least 5-10k more words.  Then it’s editing and rewriting.  A writer’s work is never done.

But at least I survived the month and got most of the way through The Apocalypse Gazette.  It took some interesting turns, led me on a merry chase, but in the end I got a hold of it and didn’t let go.

And once I wrap up the last few chapters I need to start throwing around ideas for November.

NaNo Update

Whew, wow.  Yeah.  This month has been crazy.  I signed up for my third NaNo at the beginning of the July (full Nano last November, then April and July for camp), and this was the first time so far that I actually thought I wouldn’t finish on time.

This month has been busy all around, work, personal, and everything in between.  I was struggling to even make progress on The Apocalypse Gazette, which is why I haven’t taken the time to post here much.  Work work work.

At the beginning of this week I was barely at 35k with only five days to go.  Not insurmountable but way farther back than I wanted to be at that point.  But over the last three days I managed to pull together another 10k.  Which means I have to only get down another 5k by midnight Friday.

That I can do.  I might even finish a day early at this rate.

While I think I can make the goal for the month the story itself is far from done.  I’ve already come up with some major changes I need to make and 50k will get me close to done but I’ll probably need another 5-10 thousand words to wrap up the first draft.  It’s looking good though, I’m enjoying the story.  It’s a lot bigger and crazier and wilder than I thought it would be.  It’s been fun.

Like I did for the last Camp project, I put up sections of The Apocalypse Gazette on Wattpad as I was writing it.  If you’re interested you can pop over and see how it’s going.

And good luck to all of us participating this month!  Home stretch!

https://www.wattpad.com/story/41391002