Adapting to Change

I have been working on story four — “The Final Test” [?] — of Star Kings, and it’s going well. It started with a jumbled sketch and is now a clean draft. There’s more to do, I have to read it again for text, then read it aloud three times, and then it will be done. It takes a while.

Story four has six chapters, and when they were ready for a read through for text, I looked ahead at the sketch of story five, in case there might be problems in continuity, and to remind myself of what happened next.

The sketch for story five no longer works after story four’s natural development. I read the sketch for story six. It doesn’t work at all. Story seven seems to be okay. So far. Things could change.

So what will I do? I could just toss out stories five and six and move on. But both stories make certain points which I feel I need for the whole cycle. 

I thought about it for a while, and one possibility is to switch stories five and six, and draft out new sketches for them, keeping only what I feel I need. I could do that. I’ll have to think about it again when I get back to them later.

(Interruption to attend Mace gaming convention in Charlotte NC, and a few days of recovery afterward. Which is going to help me work on the story, as a whole, with a fresh perspective.)

It’s been a long time since I got the first idea for Star Kings. And it’s been quite a while since I wrote out the sketches for the twelve stories in the cycle. And each time I finish a story, it changes what must follow, and I have to adapt. I will not force the story I want to tell into an invalidated sketch. The cycle as a whole is growing, and becoming real. It takes a lot of work for a rough idea for a cycle of stories to come clear, and to organically achieve it’s potential.

The point is one that I’ve made before. Don’t be a slave to your outline. What grows naturally is better than any outdated sketch.

At least that’s how it works for me. 

Avoid the Ought-To’s

I met a free-lance editor at a science convention fiction, at one of the hall tables, several years ago, and we started talking. She was very persuasive, and everything she said was true. I took her card. A few days later I thought about it some more. From what I can remember, even at the rates she was charging, I could not afford her services. So far, what I have earned from the sale of the books I publish myself has not been enough to cover the cost of editing.

I’ve said many times: Writers cannot achieve their full potential without the objectivity of an editor. This is true. But I have been working for years to acquire the necessary skills to be objective about my own work. Objectivity can be learned, and learning how to edit is part of my growth as a writer. I will not let myself be sidetracked from that growth by being told that I “ought to” let someone else do it for me.

The “ought-to’s” are dangerous. You”ought to” write this way. You “ought to” work that way. You “ought to” structure your story like this. You “ought to” avoid certain themes, character types, long sentences, unfamiliar sub-genres, large words, open ambiguous endings, and so on. You do have to be careful about these things, but what is better is to master them instead of avoiding them. Every time that I succumb to an “ought to,” whatever it is or its source, I go astray and lose my story. If, in spite of this, I force a story to completion, it lacks life. It always fails to be what I wanted it to be. And it’s usually pretty awful, too.

Not Tied to an Outline

I’m waiting for a cover for A Thing Forgotten and working on my H. P. Lovecraft/Shirley Jackson fusion which I’m calling The Empty House, and needed a break, and started Star Kings story four. I have a good opening scene, and a good idea of what the ending is about, it is just (just?) the middle that I have to work on. Story Four (no title yet) has to evolve from the previous three stories while being independent of them, and has to be such that story five can follow it. (It will not be according to the sketch I wrote, everything is evolving in its own way, but I can still use the core idea.)

I remember, many years ago, when I was on a convention panel about outlines, did we use them or not and why. Several authors, including a couple in the audience, said they didn’t like to use them, because they felt trapped by them, that they had to write according to their carefully constructed outline, and could not take of on new developing ideas. But I find that forcing a story to fit a pre-determined outline is wrong — the writing stops, and beating my head against that wall only produces bruises and brick dust. 

So I have sketches for stories five through twelve. Story four is growing of itself despite the original sketch, and is turning into a better story than I had planned. I will keep my sketches for the rest of the stories, not really as an outline, but for plot points — what each story must achieve — and anything I have written in those sketches that doesn’t serve the story when I write it, I’ll just have to throw that away.

What I Do on My Breaks

When I take breaks from longer projects, I work on something shorter, like Star Kings. It is coming along. It will take me a while to finish it, as I have other long projects to work on, and the real world to contend with. Each Star Kings story is stand-alone, though all twelve stories together are an evolving series, and completes a cycle from first to last. 

Each story has to be created individually, and takes a lot of effort. Beginnings are always difficult for me. Descriptions of places are difficult. Each story has a new setting in the larger context. My main characters have evolved, and confront new situations. I have to get to a strong ending, and create a middle that leads to it.

I am doing one story at a time, each one taking some three to five weeks — not counting interruptions for trips, health, home maintenance, etc. Working on Star Kings while taking a break from a longer project helps me put it out of my mind for a while, and gives a fresh view of what has to be done when I get back to it. Star Kings is coming along, and I like each of the three stories I’ve done so far.

What Made My Stories Work

A long time ago I wrote stories for the Elf Quest collections, a series titled Blood of Ten Chiefs. Six books were planned, only five were published, even though the stories for the sixth volume had been accepted and paid for. It was the publisher’s decision, not the editors.

Those stories all worked. It was some of the best writing and story-telling that I had done. I wanted to write more stories as good as those were, but put them in a far future venue. I had character names and attributes, futuristic settings, super-advanced technologies, and lots of plot ideas, but nothing ever came of it.

It took me years, I don’t know how many, to figure that out. It wasn’t action, and adventure, and high story arcs, and long complex plots that had worked. None of my Freefoot stories had any of that. My stories were about ordinary people (in their terms), living ordinary lives, dealing with occasional unusual problems. I applied that understanding to what I now call Star Kings (I can’t change the title, Darcy did the cover long ago), and I came up with workable ideas for a cycle of twelve stories. I’ve written three so far, and am working on a fourth.

“Promotion”

Manly Wade Wellman, who was a well-respected fantasy writer and teacher, once said that calling a college class “creative writing” was redundant, because all writing is creative, even for ads and commercials.

I find this is true. I have to use the same creative (and editing) skills for my fiction, my non-fiction, for my emails, my bio-sketches for conventions, for this blog, for the “How It was Written” essays for my book site, and for my Facebook posts.

When I found that (despite some anxiety) all six volumes of The Black Ring had been published (and were even showing up on Double Dragon’s home page), I decided that I had to do something to let people know about it. It’s called “promotion,” but using that word makes me twitch. I don’t know why. Saying “letting people know about it” suites me better.

So, today, I have posted the first of a series to Facebook, about The Black Ring. Designing, writing, organizing, and making these posts do what I want them to do is taking a lot of creative energy.

After all, all writing, even for ‘promotion,’ is creative.

Trying to Create a Cover

Back in January, I posted on Facebook about the first volume of The Black Ring: Zhanai’degau, being published by Double dragon. When I was able, after user account corruption, to return to (more or less) normal writing and other work, I went to Double Dragon, to see whether any of the other volumes had come out. Volumes two and three were published in June, volumes four, five and six were published in July. It was time for me to post again.

I had finished A Thing Forgotten in March, and I was waiting for Darcy to find the time to do a cover. But her own job was taking so much of her time and energy that she just wasn’t able to do it for me. So I decided to try to do it for myself. And that has taken me all of August so far.

I don’t have her software, her skills, her artist’s insight, but I do have her previous covers for inspiration. And to set a standard, against which to compare my work, which I will never match. But I’m learning, by doing it wrong and starting over, by making mistakes and trying again, by consulting with Darcy whenever I have what I call a ‘proof of concept,’ then starting over again.

Darcy works in Photoshop. I have Photoshop Elements, a much simplified version. I am learning those bits and pieces which enable to do what I want. 

And since my best time for creative work is early in the morning, that is what I’ve been doing instead of working on a story. Or posting on the blog. Or updating my book site. Or posting on Facebook.

Until now, when the end is in sight, even though posts like this may not be that frequent, at least for a while.

Getting Back to Work

I do my best work, as a writer, first thing in the morning, after a cup of coffee. Caffein doesn’t wake me up so much as it helps me focus my attention. I always have more things on my mind than I can deal with at one time. My family knows, that until I tell them that I’m done for the day, they should leave me alone.

Which is why, when I decided to do this blog, that I set Saturday mornings aside for it. I worked on my stories (novels usually) Monday through Friday, then on Saturday I worked on my blog (and book site), and on Sunday I paid bills and dealt with emails and other business, which otherwise would tend to be put off for who knows how long. It’s a part of my discipline.

My computer’s user-account corruption of May 18 blew that all away. I had to deal with that if I was going to do anything at all. It took all my time and energy, until I could begin restoration. That took most of my time and energy, and there is still a lot more to do, but by now I can spend time on writing and other business. I expect restoration to go on in the background for a long time yet.

Sometimes I discover software which I need, which has to be moved from my backup to my computer. Which then needs to be unlocked, and to have the permissions fixed. Doing that usually puts an end to my creativity for the day.

A Reason for Not Writing

I have often said that there are only a few legitimate reasons for not writing. Given that you’re a writer in the first place.

1. You’ve got to finish your education. You really do.

Because if you don’t, you won’t be able to support yourself while you write. You need a place to sleep, food, and at least paper and pencil. Ideally it means a home however humble, enough food to keep you healthy, and at least a small computer/word-processor. They say artists starve for their art, but you can’t starve and do art at the same time. If you’re really hungry, as I have been, all you can think about is food. So, finish the education, and even if you work part time you’ll be able to live while you write the other part of the time.

2. You have a small child or dependent parent.

They need all your time and attention and energy, even if you have a spouse or partner. I was my daughter’s full time father, since Diane had the outside job and the income. That meant that, until I found a good play-group for her, I was unable to write for her first three years. It was worth it in so many ways, but I still wrote nothing during that time. If Darcy needed me, I put down the keyboard, and did what had to be done. My sister took care of our mother who had Alzheimers. 

3. You are ill, or exhausted, or on medication, so that you can’t think. Grief due to death of immediate family counts.

Writing while you can’t think is theoretically possible, but when I can’t think of the next word, it really doesn’t work. Get well first, take notes, but serious writing demands a clear head, focus, and energy. And by the way, the only drug compatible with good writing is caffeine. Oh, and if you’re dead yourself, you are excused from all further writing.

4. Your commanding officer has other ideas. 

You really have no choice. I know people who have had to put their writing career on hold while responding to the demands of their military career. You really have to do this.

5. You lose the means with which to write.

Computer, or quill and paper, or old manual typewriter. If you don’t have what you need to make a permanent copy of your creative efforts, you can’t write, and what you must do is to get what you need. Also, though you could write with pencil on paper on the table, try sending that off to a publisher.

And on May 18, I effectively lost the means to continue writing, when my computer’s user account finally revealed its corruption. I have no idea what it was. I probably tried whatever somebody might suggest, including disk recovery and professional help. So I started with a new computer, and a new system, and recovered from the back-up I had made just before things went wonky. The backup was also corrupted, and I could do nothing. So I erased the drive, installed the system again, and now I’m moving things from that back-up, one at a time, piece by piece, sometimes reinstalling, fixing permissions, re-validating …

Which is why I haven’t posted in so long. I am writing now, for an hour or two a day, and doing quite well. I am recovering still, for three or four hours a day, and trying to not succumb to all the bad feelings roiling around in the back of my head.

As you can see, I am making progress. After all, I wrote this blog.

It’s All Real … sort of …

One of the things I emphasize to my workshop students, is that the stories they write have to be grounded in reality. No matter how fantastic, how futuristic, how — well, unreal the final story is, it has to start from reality, so that it feels real in its own terms. 

It’s like building a house. You can build any kind you want, from a shack to a ludicrous castle, but if there’s no foundation in the solid earth, the house will fail.

If you set a story in a real place, such as the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, you describe it as it is. But you can make changes, for the sake of the story. In The Crivit Experiment, I put a building where there was none, so that I could blow it up. People who were familiar with the campus really enjoyed recognizing the place. People who are not familiar with the campus can still believe in it, because everything around it is real.

If you have an alien person, you must have some knowledge of biology, physiology, human and animal behavior, so that you don’t make gross mistakes, such as by putting eyes where, in a real animal, they would have been vulnerable to predation, and would never have evolved any kind of civilization. Or by having limbs that wouldn’t actually work according to physical laws. You also have to give your alien motives that suit the species, and aren’t just copied from human beings. You have to make sure that the most fundamental of needs — such as breathing, fear of being eaten, need for a reproductive mate, even eating and sleeping — are as they really would be, if such a being were real. There is no need to show these needs, but if you don’t understand them, your person’s behavior will feel subtly wrong.

Some things, such as faster-than-light star drives, have no foundation in reality at all, they are only the products of wishful thinking, and are, in a way, as fantastic as flying to the moon pulled up by bottles of rising dew. But we all know that, and don’t think about it, but just accept it as something to enable us to tell the stories we want to tell. And then, after all, we can still extrapolate from what we know of physics, so that we can portray what such traveling might be like, if it were real. If you don’t know even the rudiments of real physics, nobody will believe you, and they will reject your story.

If you step too far outside of reality, as I have done on several occasions, let your reader know that you are doing it on purpose, in order to tell your story, and not by accident out of ignorance. If you have snow (in the northern hemisphere) in June, at least say that it is bizarre weather for which nobody has an explanation, and let it go at that. If your heroine goes up into a dark attic, when nobody in their right mind would even pull down the stair, just to find out what’s making the groans and thumps coming from up there, she has to have a powerful motive that over-rides the most basic of fears. Mere curiosity is not enough. 

You can, in fact, do anything you want in your story. You are, after all, the Creator of its world. But no matter how far removed from the familiar your world is, if its roots are firmly in the real world, your story will be plausible and believable.