Magical Writing Class

Tetons

Careful readers of chawner.net have noticed repeated mentions of Neil Gaiman and his work. I was late to the party; I never read, watched or listened to his work until recently. About a year ago, I read Oceans at the End of the Lane and was blown away, a masterclass in story telling, mood, scene, etc. Reading Oceans while struggling with my first try at magical realism totally changed the way I wanted to write that story (so much so it’s still not done). His ability to create a feeling and pick just the right level of narrative voice blows me away.

I also read Neverwhere, American Gods, Anansi Boys and a few graphic novels; primarily because they are marvelous stories, but also to absorb what I could. He teaches a Masterclass, which I recently purchased. I went through the videos and loved them; now I’m re-watching them and churning through the workbooks – synopses of the lesson, supplemental reading, writing exercises and ways to work the lessons into your WIP.

Neil covers a wide range of topics. I’ve found his instruction on characters and dialogue the most useful. When I create stories I default to character and situation. A young woman who’s business is threatened by her old boss. A health inspector who discovers his boss is involved in a conspiracy in post-meltdown NYC. An IT employee whose company is hacked. But I don’t think in terms of the character’s wants, needs and agendas.

Neil drives home the focus on characters. Yes, I’ve read this a dozen times from other authors, but these workshops make the case clear. What does the character want? What does the character need… these are probably not the same. In fact, they may be in direct opposition. And playing out how the character gets what they need, while striving for what they want, is the heart of conflict. Before, I thought too much about external forces providing the conflict. These exercises helped me focus on the internal. My most recent works, The Valley and Mag’s Hotel (working title) developed as character’s journeys. Progress.

Another of Neil’s lessons is treating the characters badly. This isn’t unique (treat you characters badly quote), but his questions enforce the idea beautifully. In one exercise, he asks (based on the character’s wants and needs) what’s the worst thing that can happen. Then, what could be even worse? I’ll never write without working through these questions in advance, even for minor characters.

I also learned about through lines. Basically, a through line maps each incident where your character’s desires or wants are met, thwarted or challenged. And the progression should be logical and inform the progress of the character. Excellent.

To close out characters, he discusses how the wants and needs of the protagonist and antagonist should be in direct conflict. Sure, I learned this in elementary school and wrote this unconsciously into my stories to date. But it wasn’t front of mind, wasn’t driving the story or the dialogue.

Neil’s class has over twenty lessons; we only touched on a few here. I also found his discussion on giving your characters funny hats and writing economy very useful. I’m looking forward to finishing the series and adding what I learned into my next piece.

Unsticking the Flywheel

*not actually a flywheel

The flywheel effect is a powerful concept. I use it successfully in other parts of my life. I’d prefer to have a steady backlog of stories to write, stories that need editing (either from me or a professional), my Work-In-Progress (WIP) and a handful of stories out for submission. This allows me to write creatively every day, crucial for my development as a writer. Exceptions are lessons or writing prompts.

I struggle with the non-writing parts. Finding time to make real, creative edits. Outline ideas. Work on characters. Understand to either change a story or create a new one. For this, I need space. Maybe not days, but at least uninterrupted hours. I dedicate a block of time in the morning for writing, but I can’t find the time or space for the editing and dreaming.

Do I spend time on creating the outline and character conflict for the next short story, the one I’m excited to write? Or work through the comments from the pro editor and give me something to submit? Or pick up Crystal Grove, again, now that I have feedback on the beginning of the story… we need to re-work our ideas for this story, tighten up everything to date, and decide how to re-work the rest of the story. Putting together the outline for a new piece or do the Crystal Grove work, will lead to new morning writing.

The worst part is the backlog is draining my morning work. I don’t have a WIP; it should either be the new piece or CG. But I can’t work on them until I put in the time to edit. But if I jump the line and only work on them, I won’t have any submittable work for weeks, maybe months, and the flywheel will jam.

It comes down to priorities; if I want to have multiple pieces out for submission, I need to spend time, even morning time, editing The Valley and sending it on its way. If I value having something to write than I should outline and work on the characters for Meg’s Hotel to kick-start creative writing, even if that means using morning time… if only because it’s a shorter and less complicated story than CG, and I can make those changes faster.

Dream Retreats, pt2

Running Gear
Running Gear

Read pt1

A different choice is a personal retreat. At my first job out of college as a Health Inspector Northern New Jersey town, one of the senior guys had a brilliant theory about vacations; it took almost a week to get your head out of the office and to relax, and you tensed up a few days before returning… so, if you only took a week or two, you couldn’t properly unwind. He always took a 3-week block each summer to get that prime one and a half weeks of true relaxation. I’m not looking for relaxation, but the same principle applies to creativity and mindful work. Simply not working (the day job) and dedicating time, either at home or in a remote location, could be enough. Just putting space between my analytical, stressful work life and the creativity and focus needed for writing gets us more than halfway there.

But life at home, especially with a quarantine-full house, is distracting. Family, chores, to-do lists, invitations to fall into the familiar routines, leaves a limited window for quiet, creative focus. Maybe two hours a day. During a quick few days off last week, I tried to correct for this by looking for places locally to hole up for a few hours. The only place I could find was a nice local cafe, but they were very busy and served lunches quickly, so I could only linger for so long. Local libraries and colleges were still closed.

The ideal self-made retreat has to involve travel. I could do it with one other person, maybe, but ideally by myself. I don’t know what the ideal length is; over three days, less than a week. Ideally, a small, quiet cabin in the woods. We keep heading back to Upstate NY for our local trips, so a small secluded cabin. Simple kitchen and bedroom, maybe a studio or a loft. A tiny house could work, I just need ample space to write comfortably. Preferably lousy internet connection.

The agenda would be simple; an expanded version of the current morning routine, maybe 1500 or 2000 words. This pushes whatever workout we do to later in the morning, but that’s okay. So wake up, Morning Pages, meditation and 2k words, followed by a workout. Breakfast in there somewhere, simple morning oats or something similar. After the workout, reading and a nap. Followed by editing and maybe another try at words on the page. Add another walk, preferably from the cabin, in nature. Quiet evening, either go out for dinner or cook something simple, followed by reading with a fire.

This dream schedule does two things: it puts hours into writing, consistent and focused over a short period. It also doesn’t do the long list of work or home tasks and interactions; there’s nothing to pull my head out of the writing space. And the time I’m not writing or focused, my mind can wander and think and grow.

A guiding principle for this dream was Neil Gaiman’s quote on how he comes up with his stories. Talking with Tim Ferriss, he said, “Yeah, ’cause I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as n’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.

What I love about that is I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You sit there and you’ve been staring out the window now for five minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. You’re going, “Well, actually, let’s all write something.” It’s hard. As a writer, I’m more easily — I’m distractable. I have a three-year-old son. He is the epitome of cuteness and charm. It’s more fun playing with him than writing, which means if I’m going to be writing, I need to do it somewhere where I don’t have a three-year-old son singing to me, asking me to read to him, demanding my attention.

I think it’s really just a solid rule for writers. You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.”.

If a self-made retreat did nothing else, it would give me time to allow my brain to be bored.

Dream Retreats

I’ve mentioned my writing routine; 500 words per morning and 2-3 hour-long blocks during the week to edit or other writing activities. I do most of my writing during these morning sessions. And, frankly, it’s the time I have, with a non-writing full-time job and family. Of course, I dream of more.

Hugh Howey spoke about this approach. He said it was alright, but he found he discards the first five hundred words of the day… treats them almost as warmup. My experience varies; sometimes, if I know what I want to say, it can manifest quickly. Also, I do 750 words per day with morning pages which clears the mind for writing and serves as a warmup. Regardless, some days it feels like it takes a few hundred words to get things going.

One of the pandemic mini-vacations we took last year was to a cabin in the Catskills, the week before Christmas. The kids were remote learning, and carved out a few days from work. I treated it as a mini-writing holiday and set aside more time to write in the morning and made sure each afternoon included a block of editing. This focus, combined with staying somewhere new, payed off immediately. I wrote Wasted Crisis, edited Crystal Grove, generated more ideas and had fewer blockers. Ever since that trip, I’ve been yearning for a writing retreat.

I’ve never been on a retreat of any sort; the closest I came was a 2-week baseball camp when I was 14. There are two choices; a formal, instructor-led retreat with workshops and other people or a solo adventure. I’ve researched on both.

I looked for local (within driving distance) and “dream” scenarios. I’m only looking at one’s that are more open, not the writer-in-residence thing, with rigorous applications and acceptance criteria. Not yet! Most request samples but it as long as you pony up the fees, you are set. I can use the mentoring and feedback, and I’d love to interact with other struggling writers. From a distance, there looks like a lot of upside… workshops, lessons, critiques, reading other’s work, etc. Especially for someone who needs help.

I’d need a WIP or something to work with before joining a formal writers’ retreat. My albatross, Crystal Grove, would be an excellent candidate if I could join one now.

Read Part 2

Be careful what you ask for, Pt 2.

Winter_Stream

Read Part 1

They don’t have teams waiting at the ready to respond. They don’t run table-top exercises, don’t invest in security, or IT at all. To a small shop, IT is a cost center to manage costs on and forget. And maybe get a cool app. So both technical, security-savvy reviewers carried their worldview with them. I vacillated between ignoring them and wondering if I didn’t set up the situation correctly. In the end, I added more information about the size of the firm and the limited scope of the hack (only to one app, not the entire system).

The third part of feedback was the most useful. The story, as submitted, had an open ending. I gave Megs an opportunity to save the day and left her choice open to interpretation The reviewer argued this was the most interesting part and reminiscent to how the hacker held the fate of the company in his hands. And now so did Megs. What would she do with it? He added more questions to further drive home the point, but that was the most important part.

I agreed with this assessment, and it highlights a few of my weaknesses. Not enough character thought/development/issues. While writing, I focus on the plot and what’s happening… the most interesting part to me. But, of course, readers love characters and want to see them struggle. Struggle with a problem, struggle with morality, ethics, doing the right thing, self-motivation, etc. This feedback was a great way for me to go back and add some more elements into the piece. I did and the story is stronger.

The hard part, though, is working these changes into the story, one I’ve read ten times in the last few months. My skill in editing is the simple stuff… I may not craft great sentences and prose (yet!) but I recognize problematic areas. I can make in-line edits and tweaks all day long. What I haven’t been able to do very well is integrate larger ideas or edits. These edits are a skill and something I need to work through. In order for Megs to come to this conclusion, she needs to think and express certain things early on… can’t just plop some thoughts at the end and call it a day. I tried adding a new ideas and thoughts here and there. When I read it, though, it feels just like that… “feelings” tacked on that don’t mix in well with the rest of the flow. I can’t tell if this perceived weakness true or a reaction to having read the piece so many times the additions just jump out.

In the end, even with my frustration around the technical feedback, having a writer/editor look at the piece was invaluable. The goal now is to incorporate this of feedback into my normal writing routine.

Update: I submitted this to After Dinner Conversation contest and received Honorable Mention. More on this later!

Be careful what you ask for…

In earlier posts, I listed “lack of feedback” as a blocker for progressing as a writer. Spitting out words every day? No problem. Writing better every day… is hard without real, actionable feedback. I submitted a short story for a contest with modest expectations… it didn’t win, but the editors offered, for a small fee, a two-page critique. Feedback.

The story (which I’ve re-submitted to other pubs based on the below feedback) called Wasted Crisis, features Megs who works in IT for a medium-sized constructions and engineering firm. They get hacked and blackmailed; she needs to marshal her limited resources to find a way out of the situation. And, maybe, improve her standing with the firm. I submitted it the day before the deadline.

The critique had three key areas of feedback, with varying degrees of relevance. I didn’t follow the submission rules correctly (included my name and information on the first page of the manuscript -of course this is required for many submissions, but shame on me for not verifying)… so, they never read it for the contest. If I submitted it earlier, they’d have sent it back and asked me to remove that identifying information. Two lessons learned. And a waste of one of the three critiques.

The second referred to my technical description of the problem. As background, I’ve worked in technology as a programmer for over twenty years, and the last ten in corporate IT. I’m not a security expert, but am well-versed in hacking, vectors, and know first-hand how companies react to hacks. The reviewer just got a certification in IT security. Basically, he had a problem with the description of the hack and what it meant. I had this story critiqued on scribophile as well, and had a wide range of reactions from reviewers there… in its original form, I included more technology that the non-technical readers had trouble understanding; they glossed over the technical “stuff”. I couldn’t let that happen…. the story is not an in-the-weeds breakdown of how to handle a hack, the hack is the backdrop to show how the character solves a problem and the moral and ethical issues she encounters. One reviewer on Scribophile, though, was also an IT security expert, and gave similar feedback. It’s very interesting… both of the tech reviewers jumped to the same conclusion… that this fictional firm ran and acted like the corporations they worked for/with. They clearly brought their biases with them. And, to be fair, their comments were correct… just not applicable to my story. The key difference between my story and their real-life experiences is the scale. Megs (my protagonist) is almost a one-woman shop. Cheap family business (if you’ve ever worked for a family business, you’ve seen this).

Part 2 coming next week…

Lost and Found, Pt 2.

Sherlock_Book

Read pt 1

Cryptonomicon, Stephenson. My first Neal Stephenson book. One of my favorite reads of all time, truly immersive. I read it around the same time as Neuromancer, early in my career as a programmer. Of course, I was a corporate Microsoft programmer, writing software for people to buy computer hardware at MicroWarehouse, or internal sales tools that were so dull I can’t even remember what they did. In Cryptonomicon, the hackers (in both uses of the word) used a new operating system called Finux, a clever fictional turn on Linux. Linux was new and dangerous then (now it silently runs most of the world’s servers and devices); whenever I do something in the command line in Linux, I always picture myself as one of Stephenson’s characters. A long read by most standards, it’s short compared to his more recent books like Seveneves. Another one for the short list of books to re-read.

How the Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill and Great Irish Short Stories, Mercier. Fortune smiled on me (or was it a bit of the ol’ luck?) with these two books. I’ve read a lot of Gaiman lately and was inspired by one of his books (Ocean at the End of the Lane) to re-work my WIP novella, and am listening to his non-fiction Norse Mythology. One of his consistent themes/subjects/approaches had been to take an ancient tale or mythology and use it in a modern setting. American Gods is the most obvious example, but Oceans at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Book have many characters from legend and myth. I wanted to try this with Irish myths and legends. While my grandparents were from Ireland, they never mentioned faeries or ghosts. And my wife is studying Irish mythology and practices as part of her energy training. Both intersect at learning Irish myths and legends. The Cahill book was mostly the history of Rome and Europe; only the bits on St. Patrick were interesting.

The last book from the pile is one of my all-time favorites. When I was in elementary school, my parents gave me The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes. I was a big fan of Holmes and wanted to be a detective. The book was amazing; hard cover, bound in green with gold, embossed lettering and painted edges on the pages. I’m thrilled to pull it out of the shadows.

Lost and Found

Gibson Covers

Like many homeowners, we’re renovating our kitchen, and, by extension, flooring for the main floor and re-doing our living room. New floor, paint, bookshelves, furniture, etc. As a result, we’re getting rid of four overstuffed bookcases.

We have a few areas for books in the house; the living room shelves and the shelves in my office. The office shelves are well maintained and I can rattle off what books are here and when I got them, my impression of them, etc. Because of our changing use of the house, I rarely wander past the living room shelves; they became dusty and ornamental.

I sorted through the shelves to decide which books stayed. Most stayed. I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of a book. Some were easy; I had old textbooks from college (in the 90s!), falling apart and wildly dated (Principles of Management? Gantt charts?). Also parted with some below-average novels, especially tech-focused stories from the early aughts. Now I have two boxes full of books, and nowhere to put them.

A few stood out; not just classics, but works I remember fondly and would love to read again. I placed them outside the box and they surround me as I write. So, so many excellent memories. Selected titles:

A Confederacy of Dunces: O’Toole. I first saw this book as a junior-high school student in the East Brunswick Public Library, on a display. The cover and the title enticed me to check it out. I read it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it. A few years back, some famous actors were interested in making it a movie. And they referred to it as a comedy… and I didn’t remember it being funny at all. So I bought and re-read it; hysterical. Big difference between reading it as an adult compared to a teenager. On the short list to read again.

Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, William Gibson. When I was first starting out in technology, in 1998, the noir world of hackers and techno music and people wearing shades typing in the command line seemed very cool… cyberpunk. Neuromancer isn’t the first cyberpunk novel, but is the best. I’ve read it three or four times. Pattern Recognition is a much later work, part of the trilogy. I only sorta liked these books when I read them the first time, but they are held in such high regard, I want to try them again. They need a careful, slow read, as Gibson purposely doesn’t reveal everything you need to know early in the book; the reader needs to puzzle through early scenes. Intentionally. My father would hate them. As a writer, I want to figure out how he does it.

Publishing Announcement: Inspector’s Legacy in New Maps

New Maps

I’m pleased to announce my second published story, “The Inspector’s Legacy” in New Maps. First in print! The Inspector’s Legacy was one of my initial story ideas. Not the first story I wrote (that was an unreadable story called “Two Birds”), but it prompted me to pursue writing.

Back in the pre-Covid days, I commuted to Manhattan by bus or ferry/subway. While sitting in traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I pictured a member of the working class commuting to post-apocalyptic Manhattan while the elite lived in tall towers. The streets and subways flooded and only the service class used them.

My first job out of college was as a health inspector (actual title: sanitarian); our hero would be one too. I wanted this health inspector to be exceptional; either a quasi-superhero or a bumbling idiot (I chose the idiot). I also wanted to show part of the job; the inspections, the bureaucracy, the conversation amongst other inspectors and employees. A lot of that made the last cut, although I reduced the detail. Turns out most people found it boring. Who knew?

And the story evolved from there. Set in a wet, caste-system Manhattan, with bankers, government officials and a small army of workers providing food, water and power. Our hero, Peter (when I worked in the Health Department, two co-workers, mentors and friends were named Peter), runs into a moral issue he may or may not be equipped to handle.

I wrote it last spring and submitted for consideration to final edition of “Into the Ruins”. It didn’t make that cut, but it was accepted for the inaugural issue of New Maps, for which I am eternally grateful. New Maps doesn’t have an online presence for the actual work; if you want to read the Inspector’s Legacy or any of the other delightful stories, you can order them here.