Thursday, December 8, 2011

RIP Kip Williams

In August of 2008, a few months before Nanowrimo would begin, I had dinner with my friend Kip.  We sat under the stars at Jayne's Gastropub, and over gourmet burgers we each shared the various ideas we were thinking of tackling for our november novels.  I pitched three projects, one of which was The Darwin Elevator.  Personally I was hotter on a different idea, but Kip looked me square in the eye and said, "If I were you I'd drop everything else and work on nothing but that."  He went on at length about the merits of the idea, and that encouragement and confidence served as a constant motivator to me during my path to where I am now.

Kip was one of the first writers I met when I started writing in 2007.  He became the heart and soul of our informal writing group, the Cosmonicans, and served as a constant source of stories, jokes, and advice.  The man had more talent in his little pinky than the rest of our group combined, in my opinion, and it saddens me that he spent so much of his time and energy battling cancer over the last few years, time I'm sure he would have loved to devote to writing.

Last year I told Kip I'd named a character after him in the book.

"Not the hero, I hope," he said.

"Oh, no.  This Kip's a total weasel."

"Perfect," he said, with his signature grin.

He passed away on November 23rd, losing a fight with leukemia, and he'll be sorely missed.

You can read some of his short fiction on his blog.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Book two progress

A quick update:  I'm about 20% of the way through book two of the DARWIN series (still working on an over-arching name for the three books).  I'm very excited about how it's shaping up.  The outline has been through a few rounds of brainstorming and feedback with my editor at Del Rey, and is so much better for it.

The second book isn't due until mid-august, but I'm shooting to finish the first draft by May 15 so that I have three months to revise.  Hopefully I won't need all of it, and can get cracking on book three early.  We'll see!

Monday, October 31, 2011

A three book deal with Del Rey

"Everything went better than expected."

Like any good drama, the submission process did not go as I thought it would.  Everything I heard leading up to Submission Day was that I'd be in for a 4-to-6 month wait, filled with nail-baiting silence occasionally broken by terse rejection.

Instead, three weeks in, our first offer arrived.

Two weeks after that, another offer.  And then a third.

Amazingly, they all had different sets of pro's and con's, and in the end I simply chose the one that I thought offered me the best catapult into a career as an author.  Del Rey won out, and it helped that they showed a ton of enthusiasm for the book and its sequels.

I'll admit there were a few rejections mixed in there, too.  But nothing disheartening.  I think the 'worst' complaint we received was that the book was too fast paced.  I can live with that!

Now comes the hard part:  sequel deadlines.  I'm on the hook for two, and both need to be delivered in less time than it took me to write the first book.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


In 1981 my father brought home a computer.  A f*cking computer, in our house.  I was nine years old.

The little beige machine, replete with dual disk drives, 64k of RAM and a black-n-white 9" monitor, cost over five thousand dollars back then (I found this out later).  It was called the Apple ][+.  In hindsight, it was an amazing investment for my dad to make in us.  I say us because he never once tried to keep the kids away from it.  Quite the opposite!  He let us claw and drool all over the thing.  And that we did.

There were some drawbacks.  We fought over who got to use it, and for how long.  I think ultimately my grade-school years suffered for it, too, because I was always too preoccupied with what program I was going to write next.  I remember in math class looking at every homework assignment and thinking about how I could totally write a BASIC program to solve this.  An hour later the plucky little computer was spitting out my homework answers, complete with the "work" I needed to write down so that it would appear to my teachers as if I'd really done it.  I wrote games and made endless password systems to try and keep my siblings out of my disks.

Like a lot of computer nerds, I moved on to other platforms.  An Atari ST, dozens of home-built PC Clones, linux machines, gaming rigs, you name it.

But I'll never forget that little beige box.  It opened my mind in ways that school never could.  It was science fiction made real, something Apple still provides today.

I can thank the Steve's (Jobs and Woz) for inventing it.  And my father, for having the foresight to buy it and let me hack on the thing.

It's the very reason I had no qualms whatsoever in handing my drooling toddler an iPad. He's not even two yet and can dance around the thing like you wouldn't believe.

Cheers, Mr. Jobs.  You didn't cure a disease or win a nobel prize, but you pioneered a world where imagination could flourish, and amazing power could be placed in the hands of a kid like me.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The problem with "read & critique" groups

Actually, I have no problem with read & critique groups in and of themselves.

My problem is that I think many aspiring writers put to much focus and energy on this path to improvement, and totally neglect an equally important one:  the plot they start with.

Reading five pages aloud to a group can yield fantastic revelations about how to properly string words together.  What concerns me is that, as aspiring writers, we seem to think this is the only form of feedback we need.  If all you focus on is the quality of writing, as judged in five page chunks, you're missing half the picture (if not more).  Imagine trying to improve your filmmaking skills by showing people one 30 second scene taken out of context.

Why are there no "plot & strategize" groups?  How about getting together with smart, diverse people and brainstorming your ideas, honing your structure, pace and scenes.  Then start writing?

My cohorts and I held brainstorming sessions like this before they started Nanowrimo last year (I skipped Nano to keep editing Darwin).  I found it to be an amazing experience.  It's a wonderful thing to see an idea floated before creative minds, watch it get pushed and prodded and bloodied.  I think everyone in the group left with a much stronger story, or at least a fat list of interesting ideas.

Now, I'm well aware that some writers prefer to start with a blank page and see where the muse takes them.  I wish them all the luck in the world, because I think they're going to need it.  For anyone who likes to at least roughly plan their story before writing word one, consider getting some friends together (they don't have to be writers, just trustworthy creative people), and have them hash it out with you.

If you don't take their ideas at face value, that's okay.  That is the great thing about ideas:  there's no such thing as a bad one when you're in brainstorming mode.  Because even a bad idea can spark a good one.

Consider reading Edward de Bono's 'Lateral Thinking' if you want some great tips on how to effectively brainstorm.  There is an art to it.  But if you don't want to read up on the topic, let me suggest a few simple guidelines:

  • Keep the sessions short. 20 to 30 minutes is ideal.  In our group, we go round-robin.  Each person had 20 minutes.  The first minute introduced the basic idea they wanted to brainstorm.  Then for ten minutes the group rapidly voiced ideas as they came.  The owner of the idea says nothing during this time (unless the group has a clarification question).  At the ten minute mark, stop and let the owner of the idea decide how to spend the next ten.  Maybe they want to focus in on a specific idea, or switch gears altogether.  It is their choice.
  • There's no such thing as a bad idea.  Meaning, discourage the group from critiquing anyone's thoughts.  No one should say "that's dumb" or "that won't work because...".  Either move on, or try to morph the bad idea into a good one (this is often where the best stuff comes from, which is why you don't want to stifle "bad" ideas).  It's up to you, the owner of the idea, to sort good from bad after the session.  The key is:  you want everyone to feel free to say whatever come to mind. 
  • Whoever "owns" the floor owns the ideas being voiced.  This is why it is critical your group is trustworthy.  The last thing you want to do is get some great idea from the group, only to find six months later that someone else in the group decided to start writing about the same thing.  If someone hears something that they truly want to use when it isn't their floor, they must ask permission of the owner. We did this and it worked out just fine.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Yer done"

That was the subject of Sara's email to me Friday.  The book is ready to submit!

I've posted part of my original query letter as a way to introduce the story, and an excerpt.

Pins and needles time!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tell a ten year old

Disclaimer:  Until I'm published, take any writing advice I give with healthy skepticism. 

This morning I started to think about how I arrived here, days away from finishing a novel.  Of the many things along the way that helped me, one stood out:

I told my ten-year-old cousin about it.

Aspiring writers, if you want to make sure you've got every corner of your world figured out, every facet of your plot bulletproof, tell a kid about it.  You'll get an endless stream of questions, some so obvious that you would have never thought to ask them yourself.

Not only that, but every time you see them after that they'll ask for updates, or attack you with a new line of questioning they hadn't thought of before.

Now that I think about it, this strategy would work well if planning a jewel heist, too.  I'll have to remember that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Update on my novel

I thought it might be time to log an update, for the historical record.

I've been hard at work on a number of revisions since I signed with Sara.  Most of these were born from her feedback, which has been fantastic and insightful.  Right now I'm putting the finishing touches on the final chapter, and in a few days I'll finally be able to hand her the full manuscript.

Line edits are next, and then, fingers-crossed, submission!  We're shooting for Sept. 1st, which is a deadline I set for motivational reasons more than anything.

Final word-count, for anyone interested in such things, will be roughly 145,000.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Random plotting tip

Try to turn your coincidences into conspiracies.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Some thoughts on the revision process

I'm amazed, here on my 4th draft, how much the plot is still evolving.  It's almost comical to look back on my first draft now, and the outline that led to it.

To you aspiring writers out there, slogging through that first draft and feeling down on your story, all I can say is... plow forward.  If your outline is as weak as mine was (in hindsight), it's still good enough to hammer out a first draft.  I'm convinced now that only after doing that can you see where the flaws are, and where the diamonds lay.

Revising is hard work, and not nearly as fun as the first draft, but I think it's where the real magic happens.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

iPad writing tools, revisited

Back in June, I posted about the writing tools I use on the iPad.  Well, things have changed!

There's no shortage of good options around for the iPad now.  And, when combined with the wonderful Scrivener 2.0, and its ability to sync with Dropbox, it is now possible to edit a current Scrivener project while on-the-go.  It's still a little fussy, but ten times better than it used to be.

I'm primarily using two tools on the iPad now:

  • First is PlainText.  It's a simple text editor, with a beautiful streamlined interface, and it can be tied to your Dropbox account.  Offline editing is possible (some will only work with Dropbox when you're on the network).  Folders are supported.  It's minimalist and it's fantastic.  When I write on the iPad, this is what I use.  Best of all, it's free, though I think it's worth the few dollars in order to remove the ads.
  • Second is neu.Annotate PDF.  This is a free PDF viewer that lets you make annotations.  Hightlights, scribblings, text -- whatever you want.  It's fast and, though a bit quirky at times, does what I need.  Can't beat the price, either.

I'm using neu.Annotate more than PlainText right now, simply because I am in revision mode.  The iPad seems good for writing new stuff, but when it comes to editing I'm much more efficient when I have my Mac handy and Scrivener front and center.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A novel approach

Recently I switched mind-mapping tools -- from Freemind to MindNode -- and in doing so I happened to open my original outline for the novel I'm working on.  I thought it'd be fun to share it, at least in visual form (I'll probably share the actual content of it later, when the book is done).

So, for anyone who may be interested, this is what my outline looked like before I started my first draft (click for full size -- warning, large image!):

The three big chunks on the right are Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.  The chunks on the left are things like characters, settings, and misc world-details.

It's fun to re-read it now, after three drafts and so many changes.  Once I imported this info into Scrivener, I abandoned the mindmap file, so it truly is a snapshop of what I'd planned to write.  I'm happy to see that the meat of my story has remained the same through all the revisions.

As I said, I'll share a detailed version later for anyone who might be interested in how things evolve from outline to final product.  If I'm allowed, I'd also like to post a PDF of the first draft -- I think it would be useful for fledging writers to see just how crappy a first draft can, and perhaps should, be.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

When time permits

My schedule is all out of whack, lately.

With our toddler, the little bundle of raw energy that he is, wanting to play late into the evening, I can no longer get writing done at home.  I'm simply too tired after work, dinner, and playtime.  Besides, I wouldn't trade that precious few hours hanging out with my son for anything.

So I've taken to writing early... really early.  These days I get up at 5am, shower, and then go find somewhere to write.  My new favorite spot is the beach.  This morning I parked my car, shifted to the passenger seat, and proofread about 50 pages on the iPad (thanks to neu.Annotate PDF, a wonderful free app).  The window was down, and despite a cold breeze, the sound of the ocean made the perfect backdrop for a productive session.

Just what I needed to get back on track.