Monday, February 16, 2015

Start to Finish

Most writers I've ever read seem to agree: write, write, write, then edit when you get it on the page.  I really try to do that.  Honest. The problem is I often find it very challenging to do things that way.
Why? Well, for starters I usually have a conception of where I want the story and my main characters to start and a pretty clear image of how they end up.  There are usually specific scenes and images and conflicts that I see along the road, but much of it is out of focus and (as The Proceena Crusade taught me) even the end doesn't always turn out as I envision. 

I often check in on Facebook when I’m working.  I like to give word counts and let you, the reader, know that I'm “hard” at work on the next great story.  That worked out really well in Lunatic City.  It had a little different feel and it was really easy to take Frank Parker along on his dark and twisted journey into the seedy underworld of Tycho City.  But, with the larger space operas, it seems the challenge is different. 

I want to advance the story, but I’m still feeling out some of the characters and their role on this large and complex canvas.  I often find characters that were first filling a space across from or next to someone at the table grow into complex people with their own stories that fit very well into the plot tapestry I’m weaving. I recently found the perfect role for someone who has really only served as a minor foil.  Now, he’s a full-fledged actor who is not just helping tell this big tale, but has a compelling story of his own that enriches the whole novel. 

This added plot thread now has to go back and be woven into the story I’ve told so far.  It means moving scenes around, compressing or elongating time lines, and sharing the page with other plot threads.  I have to do all of this without making a bloated story that bores or confuses.  This sometimes means trimming from other threads.

Much of that work can come later, during conventional editing.  It doesn't have to be perfect, but the events of my stories (like all other stories) build on the events previous.  I can’t just change this character midstream and then go back and fix it after writing the rest of the story.  OK, I probably could, but it seems so much more natural to go back, add a couple of scenes rather than try to fill in my mind what I think my character said and did in those earlier pages (I often go back and reread where thread left off to avoid continuity mistakes).  The dialogue doesn’t have to be perfect. Every move or thought doesn't have to be just so. But, the foundation for this character’s story and what he’s done so far has to be there for me to build upon.

Only then, can I write the rest of my story.

Monday, January 26, 2015


I believe reading criticisms of my work is essential to becoming a stronger writer.  Every book I’ve signed has included my author email and a request to give me some feedback.  I read every review and criticism and try to weigh that against my work in an effort to find weaknesses in my writing style.  But art is a funny thing.

It’s not concrete.  One person may hate certain types of stories or prefer certain settings or genres.  Some people won’t ever pick up my work simply because it’s science fiction.  On the other hand, I’m not one to read vampire or romance novels.  So, much of what we “like” or “don’t like” is about taste.  That begs the question: when does dismissing a criticism because of personal taste become a cop-out and when should I take the time to address the issues someone has?

I haven’t gotten many reviews (for those reading this and have read my stuff I would be grateful for an honest Goodreads or Amazon review), but I have thoroughly read the reviews of those who have taken their valuable time comment on my work.  I have tried to soak up all I can and want to use your insight to see weaknesses in my work.

I have, (to date) only received one scathing review.  That was delivered privately and not in one of the public forums.  The woman’s opinions were so harsh that it seemed she found my stories not just bad, but offensive.  I was mystified by some of the things that she said and really wanted to refute others, but I reminded myself that it was her honest opinion and my stories just weren’t for her.

One thing she did say that gave me pause (and seemed like a legitimate criticism) was that she felt I told the story through too many eyes, leaving her unsure which characters were the “main” characters.  I really gave some thought to that.  Was I using too many characters?  Should I limit the number of POVs to one or two central characters or should I stay with what I was doing?

Well, I think I have an answer: yes and no. Clear as mud, right? Well, this is art, and the “rules” of art tend to be fuzzy.  There are certain concepts I believe in: kill as many adverbs as possible, don’t change POV in the middle of a scene, avoid the passive voice…the list goes on.  But, the stylistic choice to tell the story through the eyes of many characters is different.

I am aware that I write stories that sometimes require the reader to keep up.  I have complex plot threads (some of them occur completely off the page) that require the reader to pay attention.  There’s a lot going on.  Threads that start out far apart in the beginning of the story come together in (what I hope is) a well-woven tapestry that holds up under scrutiny and (more importantly) is entertaining.

I have always enjoyed complex stories like these, stories that deal with the conflicting motivations of their characters, stories that can make even the villains believable and relatable, stories that bring people who were far apart at the beginning of the tale together for its climax.  This often requires the eyes of several characters.

Furthermore, I feel that telling the story through the eyes of certain characters can help build suspense. If I introduce you to a character and invest time getting to know him/her and then that person is killed in the first or second act, is any character safe? Or, if I have a ticking time bomb in the plot of which the main characters are ignorant, how can I make the reader aware without letting my main characters in on it? The answer becomes simple: show it through the eyes of the villain or other lesser character.  That’s sometimes the only way to preserve the suspense while keeping the main characters oblivious to the danger lurking in the shadows.

Harry Turttledove, George R. R. Martin, and Stephen King have all told complex stories through the eyes of many characters very often. The Game of Thrones series and Needful Things novel are just two examples of how these techniques have been used to great success. But, that doesn’t mean that I should just do this with reckless abandon.

I included some “background scenes” as told through the eyes of Turab Al Saad, Aaron Bell, and Kimball Rhodes in Procythian Reign, but I really like them.  Two of the three sire characters who play at least a supporting role in the next Proceena installment and the other provides an up-close-and-personal view of the Wolf lycosaries, characters I’m trying to get great use out of in the last Proceena installment.  Also, the Battle of Bravura City has tremendous repercussions throughout the rest of the Proceena stories, so it felt appropriate to include those moments of history in the story.

There is something to be said for keeping the story as focused on as few characters as possible.  Using too many point of views can take focus away from the story’s central events.  I struggled with keeping the reader up on important events happening off the page while staying with the main conflict between the Clabar-Bankovs and the Al Saads in The Proceena Crusade. I rewrote and restructured many times, not to change the essential story, but to funnel the story through the eyes of as few characters as possible.  I’m delighted with the results.  I hope you are, too.

Now, I find myself writing my last Proceena story and I have been attempting to minimize the characters through which I tell the story, and this story is blossoming into a story of which I know I’m going to be proud and (I hope) you’re going to enjoy.  But, I think I’ll be adding some more substance to this plot and adding a few characters with whom to tell the stories, but the last Proceena story has to be big. It is, after all, a space opera.

I’m going to work hard to keep the story flowing through the central characters, but I don’t want to short change you with a half-told stories.  I just know it’s going to be a lot of fun!